A remarkable event in development policy research took place in Copenhagen on 30 March 2012. The Africa Power and Politics research consortium (APPP) which I have been working with for the past five years, joined with four other major research programmes, funded by a range of donors, to give a joint presentation to an audience of donors, practitioners and other researchers.
Rethinking ‘good governance’ development policies
The purpose of the event was to urge a fundamental rethink in the way development policy is conceived and aid disbursed by the main bilateral and multilateral donors.
The basic message was twofold:
- Donors and development researchers should stop pretending that ‘good governance’, based on the kinds of states which emerged in rich countries after industrialisation, is a prerequisite for economic development.
- Economic development in Africa requires economic transformation (fundamental changes in the productivity of agriculture and the emergence of modern industries), not just economic growth based on another commodities boom. Such transformation is unlikely to come from massive budget transfers for social provisioning and capacity support, based on good governance conditionalities including competitive electoral democracy. It is mainly the product of the particular configuration of incentives which drives political elites to use their economic ‘rents’ to support long term investment in nationally-based capital accumulation, agricultural transformation and productive industry (see the Elites Production and Poverty programme).
Why a political economy of ‘best fit’ should guide development assistance
The policy implications of the Copenhagen statement are difficult, at least for Western donors who have to convince a domestic public of the value of aid. The researchers argue that policy has to be realistic about the nature of politics in poor, developing countries; developmental successes in Africa and even more so in South East Asia have not been associated with regimes that are more ‘democratic’ or well-governed than the less successful. (See the comparative work done by APPP and the Tracking Development project at Leiden University). It’s simply that some patrimonial regimes are more effective than others, if the ruling elite are sufficiently united and the local conditions have incentivised them to develop and implement productive policies.
Policy, therefore, should focus on facilitating the resolution of collective action problems in the provision of infrastructure or investment in private industry, based on a careful analysis of the interests at stake. In other words, a political economy of ‘best fit’ should guide development assistance, based on an understanding of how things really work in a particular country. This may mean less money spent or even withdrawal of aid.
This does not mean that donors should ‘support dictatorships’ or ignore human rights abuses. But it does mean that where there is dysfunctional competitive clientelism, policy might focus on facilitating political settlement or consensual coalition politics around particular economic goals. Or it should focus on particular sectors and local systems which are developing effective forms of action.
The contribution of the Africa Power and Politics programme to this manifesto comes from its focus on how some institutions have overcome the chronic problems of collective action which exist throughout Africa (lack of authority and trust, incentives to free ride and choose individual or private solutions) to produce the ‘public goods’ which are needed for effective development.
‘Working with the grain’ – practical hybrids for local problem-solving instead of ‘good governance' orthodoxy
We started with a hunch that the institutions which work in Africa are those rooted in local ways of doing things, using cultural repertoires or institutions which have the authority to sustain collective action, drawing on accepted forms of social obligation — 'working with the grain’ as we initially called it. This does not automatically imply a resort to what is misleadingly called ‘tradition’ in Africa; the values which we found in action were contemporary and varied, and established through empirical investigation.
The most important discovery, however, was that whilst ‘working with the grain’ was necessary, it was not sufficient to fully explain the cases we found of effective action.
- For instance, maternal health services in Rwanda work because the state and ruling party provide a coherent policy framework and authoritative coordination, together with forms of legitimation using neo-traditional political practices.
- In Ghana, accessible local justice is provided by state institutions which combine the provision of professionally committed personnel and authoritative enforcement with use of popular codes of fairness and morality.
- In Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a massive increase in basic educational provision has resulted from the state working with the Islamic community to provide ‘Franco-Islamic’ schools which combine the religious standards demanded by parents with access to modern education regulated according to national standards.
- Traders associations, transport unions, youth associations and local chiefs have all worked with the state to provide clean markets, effective bus stations, emergency maternity ambulances, security and burials in Sierra Leone, Niger and Malawi.
- At the national level, workable reforms to the cotton marketing system in Mali which challenge the donor drive for liberalisation are the result of the political regime working with deeply entrenched cotton producer institutions- accepting the national ‘cotton cultural capital’.
- In African states which have had, or currently enjoy, periods of developmental success (Cote d’Ivoire, Banda’s Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Botswana), presidential regimes use neo-patrimonial forms of authority to implement and sustain long-term investment in economically productive enterprises and capital accumulation—a kind of ‘developmental patrimonialism’ similar to that of South East Asia.
We term these examples of effective developmental institutions ‘practical hybrids’. None, it should be noted, resemble the kinds of institutions advocated in ‘good governance’ capacity-building reforms, or the formally participatory associations and elite-led advocacy NGOs popular with donors anxious to promote ‘social accountability’. They work because they are embedded in locally understood and constructed solutions to particular collective action problems.