Breaking heads over questions of change

Peace & Security08 Aug 2014Frauke de Weijer

In his article – and the book upon which it is based – Seth Kaplan aims to look at the power dynamics and the role of elites and then seeks ways to make the latter work more for the benefit of their countries and populations. He starts from the double premise that 1. governments do not work well and are easily corrupted or hijacked by powerful interests, and 2. societies are divided into many different identity groups. In his theory, these factors combine to create a governing system that inevitably produces inequitable social relationships and self-interested politics that work against the interests of the weak and deprived.

These premises can of course be criticized. Societies are never naturally divided, but fault lines are created and instrumentalized by political actors. Equally, governments are never monolithic nor are all individuals within them fully self-centred. Still, even if these are only half-truths, the conclusion that these assumptions change the way you analyze problems is correct. And this is the strength of the argument put forward in Kaplan’s article. He takes reality as a starting point and finds the openings, the margins for manoeuvre, and the potential points of leverage that change actors may have. He looks not at what the ideal would look like (fair and free elections leading to an inclusive government), but at what some of the mechanisms are that could lead to an improved – more inclusive, more pro-poor – situation.

This way of thinking is in line with political economy thinking, like the work by David Booth and others, and also with the work conducted by the Leadership for Development program and, more broadly, the Thinking and Working Politically community. It promotes a way of thinking that is more conscious of ‘how change comes about’ instead of ‘what change should look like’. Furthermore, Kaplan aims to take this even further by presenting concrete ideas on what levers may exist to entice such changes to come about.

But this is where the weakness of the article starts to emerge. It leaves us wondering who the audience of this book exactly is. Who are these recommendations intended for? Who has access to these levers and why would they use them? Kaplan states that ‘enlightened individuals’ within countries seeking to encourage more inclusive behaviour from elites are not without their own weapons to advance their agenda. At a later stage he points out the steps that could be taken by ‘members of the elite who want to nurture more inclusive and development-oriented states’. And further on he asks how ‘business, community and religious leaders’ can persuade political leaders to act more inclusively, wondering how ‘pro-reform forces’ can use their power to change the incentives of those who can bring about change.

It is therefore clear that Kaplan views ‘enlightened individuals’, pro-reform forces and those that aim to persuade the elite to become more inclusive as the change-makers. Yet in most examples that he provides this enlightened individual (Kagame, Soharto) is the head of state itself. This individual is already the head of the elite, and is therefore apparently no longer in need of convincing. Many of the concrete tools or ideas that Kaplan offers require a high degree of influence or political power to implement. An inclusive, pro-development ideology for instance tends to be professed by governments, not by business or religious leaders. What if the political elite are not willing to use these weapons, for the very reason that Kaplan himself describes, because they are more interested in maintaining the status quo? How applicable are these ‘weapons’ or ‘tools’ really for an individual who is relatively powerless?

Kaplan makes a good attempt to try and break open the black box of ‘political will’ by looking at where coalitions can be formed that work both for (some of) the elite and for (some of) the poor, and how such coalitions can be incentivized. But he still cannot give us an answer on what can be done when the elite is not so inclined, although the last section on incentives starts to make some headway in that direction. Furthermore, he still leaves us with the question on how these power asymmetries underpinning exclusion – the institutional bias that he starts off with – will ultimately be changed. Because without a fundamental change in these asymmetries it is doubtful the exclusion will disappear, even if growth begets more growth.

However these notes are not meant as a criticism of the argument Kaplan is putting forward. They are perhaps more a testimony of how difficult it really is – for any change agent – to make any change come about under these circumstances. Finding even the smallest lever for change is already no mean feat, and I wish more people would make as great an effort as I know Kaplan has made to answer these questions.