Leo de Haan: Africa and the developmental state

Knowledge brokering14 Feb 2010Leo de Haan

The WRR report deserves praise for its insightful analysis and especially for highlighting historical and geographical differentiation in processes of modernization. Not surprisingly, Africa receives considerable attention in the report. Whichever set of indicators for development is used, Africa – and I limit myself to sub-Saharan Africa as the report does – has, for decades, scored worse than any other part of the world.

‘Large general schemes’ alone only result in very general statements and such schemes have to become more country-specific before they become more meaningful. There is no blue print for development across sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, just as there is no general Asian model or even a European model of development. And there will never be an African model, either. A country-specific approach is the most realistic option. However, if Dutch development cooperation is to be concentrated on a limited number of partner countries – which is very doubtful because of the enormous diversity in ‘country interest’ in the Netherlands – then it is to be hoped that Dutch research centres and centres of expertise will not just blindly follow the trend. It should be remembered that knowledge of the specific is only useful when there is an understanding of the broader picture: specialization is significant only when it is put in a broad comparative perspective.

Analyses of development along the lines of macro-regional categories, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East plus North Africa, and South Asia, are useful but need to be investigated more specifically as they too have a long history. Where Africa begins and ends – in other words, which societies appear to be identical to such a degree that it becomes interesting to analyze them as one group – is not forced upon us by an objective reality but is shaped by a particular historical notion, i.e. the racist connotation that served to justify the colonial civilizing mission. Then, sub-Saharan Africa was ‘Black Africa’ and it is important to remember this because from one of the important contemporary justifications for development cooperation, called the moral order the report, there is a clear line of descent from that civilizing mission.

Though the development pathways of countries in Africa are not yet noticeably taking shape, in a ‘world of states’ in which development cooperation is trying to define its role, there is special interest in the role of the state and its policies, particularly the potential rise of a developmental state. A developmental state is characterized by a political elite that accumulates and invests in growth sectors, resulting in increased wealth. Elites do not act this way out of sheer altruism –although the report does refer to examples from Asia to support this argument – but because it appears to be a good way of legitimizing their position of power.

Contrary to what the report claims, the developmental state and the neo-patrimonial state are not two extremes in a continuum. Instead, the neo-patrimonial state itself is the result of two interacting poles running from patrimonial, in which all political and bureaucratic relations are personal, to legal-rational, where all relations are formal and private and public spheres are separated. In the neo-patrimonial state, the distinction between the private and the public is formally acknowledged and formal rules are accepted, although in practice these can be replaced by the personal and the informal. It is sometimes wrongly argued that a neo-patrimonial state maintains a formal façade behind which an informal reality exists. Nothing is further from the truth: in a neo-patrimonial state, patrimonial and legal-rational elements co-exist and both are reality. As a consequence, being less neo-patrimonial does not necessarily mean being more developmental.

The question is why a neo-patrimonial state turns into a developmental state. The answer is to be found in political pressure from below to create more wealth, i.e. economic growth, because otherwise the dominant position of the political elite is put at risk. So a neo-patrimonial state can be a developmental state at the same time. The report considers implementation capacity, or the ‘ability to deliver’, to be a crucial characteristic of a development state. This is correct. Corruption, clientelism and patronage are not the problem in a neo-patrimonial state, but the unpredictability about when and where neo-patrimonial elements are appropriate, and when and where formal, legal rules are applicable. Such unpredictability frustrates implementation capacity, but the more citizens can predict when and where the informal is valid and when and where the formal, the more this capacity can grow. Neo-patrimonial states in Africa do not necessarily have to democratize before they can become developmental. However, they must feel under political pressure from society to engage in a social contract for economic growth with the population, instead of feeling secure enough to found their power on a patronage-based redistribution of state revenues and a fat bank account abroad.

Ref: G. Erdmann & U. Engel (2007). Neopatrimonialism Reconsidered: Critical Review and Elaboration of an Elusive Concept. Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 45 (1): 95-119.