There are two strands of learning I have drawn from considering the theories and history of political development:
Firstly, when tracing ideas of political development in the 20th and 21st century, we see how the study of political development was born in the 1950s as the US and the Soviet Union contested over how economic growth could be achieved. Academic thinking has varied widely on how political and economic development come about. The “state planning” of Communist states was challenged by the US led modernisation approach with Rostow theorising about five stages of economic growth, five processes of political development that states must undergo in order to achieve “modernity.” (Ruttan, 1991, What happened to political development). Ideas of social evolution, social differentiation, secularisation, cultural modernisation and moving from traditional to modern dominated thinking about the processes of political development (Smith, 2003, Understanding Third World Politics). Criticism of the modernisation approach began to emerge though with the question of “whose progress” modernisation theory was referring to and the validity of assuming “tradition” equalled “backwardness” and an obstacle to development (Smith 2003). Modernisation theory was criticised for making assumptions about the homogenous nature of culture and tradition, the supremacy of Western ideals and the possibility of replicating the Western experience – whilst all the time failing to take into account the importance of the influence of external forces (Smith 2003).
An alternative approach to political development grew out of what became known as dependency theory, where developing countries were seen as existing to support the development of rich countries. World capitalism and particularly trade were not seen as engines of economic growth, rather they were responsible for under developing the Third World (Ruttan 1991). Dependency theory also had its critics though as similarly to modernisation theory, it does not draw lessons from history. It doesn’t recognise that class relationships within developing countries can change and therefore influence the relationships with the metropolis (Smith 2003). Dependency theory also tends to focus on economics at the expense of politics, as well as being undermined by the empirical evidence of the growth and development seen within previously poor countries, particularly the East Asian tigers. Moving into the 1980s, the ascendancy of neoliberalism meant that an interest in political culture and the politics of development evaporated, with the importance of the role of the markets in development being elevated to a seemingly unchallengeable position.
Cracks in the neoliberal hegemony began to show by the early 1990s though and an interest in good governance began to appear. Thus began the rediscovery of politics in development. Neoliberalism was criticised for presuming that all countries were the same and underestimating the importance of a state’s political context. By the 21st-century, a post development, grassroots politics had gained prominence, with attempts to get politics away from the centre and put power into the hands of the people becoming more commonplace.
In recent years, there has been increasing interest in political development – failed states and the importance of State building are very much on donors agendas, particularly since 9/11 and the beginning of the “war on terror”. If we can learn anything from the past 60 years of development, it would perhaps be that development is not a discipline in itself, it is a field of interdisciplinary studies.
Secondly when examining the importance of political development as a process, different interpretations of its relationship with economic development and patterns of social organisation are revealed.
North et el (Violence and the Rise of Open-Access Orders, 2009) discuss political development in the terms of the patterns of social organisation, or social orders which societies follow. States can be differentiated into foraging orders, limited access orders and open access orders. The importance of politics can be seen in the way these different orders control violence within societies, with open access orders enforcing rules in an impersonal manner and limited access orders, being formed on the basis of personal relationships between elites, therefore, controlling violence through power balances and negotiations between those elites.
Both North el al and Ruttan believe that political development has a dynamic relationship with social and economic development. To North el al, political development creates new forms of social, political and economic organisation, which in turn, as illustrated in the example of open access orders, enables states to cope with shocks better. Ruttan believes economic and political development are a collaborative processes and therefore, the thinking should be more joined up, something which up until now, has not really been the norm.
An interesting conclusion which Ruttan makes is in relation to authoritarian political organisation and economic growth. The dominant view has been that “good economics” is liberal economics, and therefore “good” governance is Western, liberal governance. Ruttan challenges this somewhat by concluding that when a state is at the beginning of its development, authoritarian political organisation can facilitate rapid economic growth. It is only when a country is developed to a point of middle-income status, that authoritarianism becomes an obstacle to economic development.
The session touched on the fact that there has been a “rediscovery” of the importance of politics in development. I do find it rather astounding that the importance of politics was ever “lost” – ever since I gained an interest in development, within a few weeks of starting work in Kenya, it’s always seemed evident that politics is the root of the “poverty” problem. I remember hearing Bill Clinton’s campaign phrase from 1992 – “it’s the economy stupid!” The same phrase comes to mind when thinking of politics, poverty and development – my own version being “it’s politics stupid!” Reading through the various theories and frameworks, it is comforting to know that, despite their flaws – theories of political development actually exist! I find it frustrating though that political development was neglected during the 80s and 90s – considering development purely as an economic process to me seems illogical. On a human level, it can almost make you angry, because when you look at the failures of the 80s and 90s and the billions of dollars that were practically poured down the drain, you begin to imagine the billions of individuals who remained in poverty because of the “economic tunnel vision” of international financial institutions.
I also find it frustrating how the “limited access orders” which North and et al refer to seem to be trapped somehow by the very mechanisms which enable them to exist. Yes – elite bargaining and dominant coalitions mean that there is some level of security, preventing anarchy from reigning, however, the rent seeking and monopolies which emerge from such personalised systems of rule mean many countries seem unable to cope with change or shocks or avoid those sustained periods of negative economic growth which the authors believe must be averted in order to achieve development. Limited access orders may bring about a good level of security but the means which they use to do this actually prevents them from making the transition to an open access order…it’s a frustrating circle to observe.
Political development has been at the heart of social science – it is at the heart of the great political philosophers writings – the works of Marx, Weber, Durkheim. The works of these authors cannot be underestimated in terms of their influence, not just on social science as a discipline, but on the way that states are run; on the way that societies have grown and developed and on the way political and social change has occurred. Therefore, if Marx, Weber, Durkheim and their contemporaries considered political development as a fundamentally important concern, it would seem that the donor community should hold it as an equally fundamental concern, with this being reflected in their policies and programs. DFID’s development of Drivers of Change assessments and the USAID equivalent suggest this concern has been taken on board, but it’s important that concerns are not just reflected in the wording of policy but that they also come out in practice.
USAID country governance assessments though reflect the donors strong association of good governance with democracy. In Ruttan (1991), Abbas Pourgerami, has a similarly positive view of the relationship between democracy as he believes that “democracy has a positive impact on economic growth.” This assertion would seem to be rather contentious as a country with one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, China, has managed to achieve this growth rate without democracy. Additionally, African countries which were part of the democratisation wave of the 1990s, may well have achieved more positive rates of economic growth, but whether economic growth can be interpreted as development is questionable when income inequality remains and is even increasing in many countries.
What seems to be important when thinking about political development, and its relationship with the growth of the state and economic development, is to take as holistic and interdisciplinary approach as possible. Modernisation and underdevelopment approaches fell short in terms of their rather narrow focuses, to the exclusion of the analysis of important factors which influence the processes of political development. There is a danger that the rather overwhelming good governance agenda could begin to repeat some of the same mistakes, with its unrelenting focus on the requirements of the agenda overriding the importance of a particular country’s context and the reality of historical experience.
Applying today’s session, I’ve learnt that it’s important to consider process as well as outcomes. There has been a good deal of disagreement over the process of political development – from state planning to market led development; from modernisation theory to dependency theory; from the good governance agenda playing itself out today. Political development is a process – and ultimately must be grounded in more than theoretical concepts, it must be grounded in relevant, historical experience, something I will take on board whenever I consider what development interventions are appropriate in different countries.