Vernon Ruttan, in his 1991 article ‘What Happened to Political Development’, explores the ‘intersection’ between politics and economics in relation to development, noting that ‘economic policy is made by incumbent politicians in the context of political institutions and that ‘the choice of the alternative policies that are subjected to economic analysis is influeced by the agendas of political interests, yet ‘there is a deep fault line that divides scholarship in the two fields.” He argues for the development of “an integrated theory of political and economic development.”
It is interesting to reflect on this introductory (and dated) article at the end of the course. Arguments for integrating political economy further into development studies have come up at every turn – whether in analysing how elites might be involved in ‘pro-poor politics’ or in understanding ‘failed states’ or the rise of new powers. It seems subsequent scholars of development politics, whilst moving the debate onwards in identifying specific sites of this political/economic nexus, have been unable to fully develop this integrated theory.
We have made some progress, however, in moving from simple claims about the relation between the two, such as ‘democracy improves poverty reduction’ or Ruttan’s claim that autocracy is necessary in the early stages of development, to the more nuanced observations of Ashutosh Varshney that democracy seems to avoid the worst, but has not achieved the best, reductions in poverty. This process of challenging simplistic assertions must continue, as I have tried to do in challenging Varshney’s claim that the reason for democracy’s inability to eliminate poverty is its restriction to direct methods of poverty alleviation. I have suggested that India demonstrates that poor democracies are able to pursue indirect means, but that there may be other political/economic factors which hold back development – in the case of India I suggested corruption as a key issue, whose root causes in that particular political/economic situation need further research to propose individual solutions.
Certainly it is true that ‘politics is back’ in development, having been superseded by economics for much of the period 1970-2000. That process is still in the early stages however. This is evident in Adrian Leftwich’s excessively broad definition of politics as, ‘all the activities of co-operation, negotiation and conflict, within and between societies, whereby people go about organising the use, production and reproduction of their biological and social life’, which though recognizing the broad scope of the influence of politics, fails to offer a productive way forward in research or policy design. It is also evident in the writings and activities of development institutions such as the World Bank, who have recognised the need for ‘good governance’ etc, but whose approaches to effect such change remains restrictively technocratic.
In some ways recent developments have shown that Ruttan’s project was misguided. He concludes that, “efforts to identify the political preconditions or conditions for economic development have not been as fruitful as I had hoped.” The last post on the rise of China and the ‘find your own way’ model of development discusses the retreat from a search to find universalistic solutions for development, noting that development in distinct times and places requires distinct solutions. This insight calls for further research aimed not at finding similarities between various development successes or failures, but in identifying particular challenges and opportunities within particular situations. Extending the knowledge-base of development studies on this model is a slower, more incremental and pain-staking process than earlier attempts to find ‘the key’ to development, and this perhaps explains its slower rise to prominence. This is an example of how the politics of development studies should be brought into the study of development politics. Development scholars and practitioners shape the debate in subtle ways that may have nothing to do with objective features of development, but relate to the assumptions and culture and politics of the scholar or practitioner.
Ruttan’s call for an ‘integrated theory’, whilst dated, remains as relevant as ever – we must continue to develop our understanding of politics and its interaction with economics, both in developing countries and the global political economy. I add to this the need to also integrate considerations of the politics of development studies, as well as to move from universalistic to more particularistic understandings and solutions in order to further develop the study of development.