Researching the politics of development



Open access book: Read an extract from The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa

21 November 2019
New, open access book on The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa has been edited by ESID’s Sam Hickey, Tom Lavers, together with UNU-WIDER’S Miguel Niño-Zarazúa, and Jeremy Seekings of the University of Cape Town. The book challenges existing accounts of how social protection has spread in Africa. The common assumption is that the popularity of social protection programmes in African countries has been entirely driven by international development agencies. But this book instead focuses on the role of political dynamics within specific African countries. 
This extract from from the book’s introduction sets out how the driving force for reform has been where social assistance is incorporated as an element of the political survival strategies employed by domestic political elites to build regime legitimacy, secure political allegiance, or win electoral support:

While transnational actors have exercised some influence on the expansion of social assistance within Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), the case studies here emphasise that the timing of scheme adoption, the types of programmes adopted or rejected, and the degree of programme expansion are all fundamentally driven by domestic political dynamics. Cases as diverse as Ethiopia, Malawi  and Uganda all highlight how donor pressure for policy reform and the expansion of social assistance have been resisted over extended periods, only resulting in programme adoption and expansion when domestic political factors shift or where donors realign their advocacy efforts to fit with dominant ideas and incentives within national-level politics. Here, we focus on how these political dynamics, particularly in terms of political settlements, ideas and electoral politics, have shaped the adoption and expansion of cash transfer programmes in our eight case study countries.
Social assistance and the politics of elite survival in east and southern Africa
In stark contrast to research on the politics of welfare states and social protection in Latin America, and also in the South Asian context, the case studies in this book suggest that popular political mobilisation has played a minimal role in the expansion of social assistance in east and southern Africa. Instead, the driving force for reform has been where social assistance is incorporated as an element of the political survival strategies employed by domestic political elites to build regime legitimacy, secure political allegiance, or win over electoral support. These survival strategies differ according to both the nature of the political settlement within each country, with reference to the balance of power relations among elites and between elites and subjects, and the dynamics that flow from these shifting power relations. Of the case studies that employ the political settlements framework, a clear divergence exists between those countries where political power is concentrated among a handful of political elites within a dominant ruling party (Ethiopia and Rwanda) and those in which power is more dispersed among elite groups (Uganda and Zambia). In the former, electoral politics are a mere façade, offering little to no possibility of regime change. In contrast, in the latter, some degree of dispersal of political power in Uganda and Zambia requires that politicians prioritise building broad political coalitions through alliances and the distribution of rents in order to win elections.
There are strong similarities between the Ethiopia and Rwanda cases, in terms of how this basic political settlement translates into commitment to particular forms of social assistance. In each case, the ruling elite secured political power through military means, and this narrow elite is commonly associated with a minority ethnic group, which would stand little chance of maintaining power through the distribution of rents and coalition-building strategies common in Uganda and Zambia. Instead, both regimes have adopted a developmental orientation as a foundational element of their political settlements, seeking to build regime legitimacy through the delivery of rapid and broad-based socioeconomic development, alongside the suppression of political voice outside the ruling party. These clear developmental visions initially excluded social assistance—quite explicitly in the case of Ethiopia (Lavers, this volume)—while prioritising ideas of self-reliance and the importance of maximising resources for broad-based economic development. It was only in the context of perceived threats to the political settlement—including a major food crisis in 2002-03 following a series of ‘Armageddons’ facing the leadership in Ethiopia and rising inequality that threatened to undermine the post-ethnic national building strategy in Rwanda—that social assistance schemes have been integrated into existing development strategies as a means of enhancing regime legitimacy and neutralising potential political threats (see Chapter 4 on Rwanda). In doing so, very particular forms of social assistance have been adopted and rapidly rolled out, with a strong focus on productive programme designs through an emphasis on the development of community infrastructure through labour-intensive public works and links between receipt of transfers and credit and livelihoods schemes to promote self-reliance and graduation.
A very different process unfolded in Uganda and Zambia, as shown in the respective chapters (8 and 7). While ruling parties in these countries periodically express a desire to pursue developmental or social democratic agendas, these have been inconsistently applied in practice, not least as a result of the necessity of elite coalition building and rent distribution that undermines developmental impulses. As such, ruling party ideology has provided little in the way of support for the expansion of social assistance, while concerns about the dangers of welfare dependency resulted in significant opposition, particularly from finance ministries in both cases. Rather, the original strategy for social assistance in Uganda and Zambia came from donors who lobbied extensively to secure approval for pilot cash transfer schemes. These pilots were then the focus of further advocacy efforts focused on building the evidence base for programme efficacy (particularly in Zambia) and organizsing visits for influential politicians and bureaucrats to demonstrate the programmes in action. However, the moderate levels of political support that have ultimately been secured in each case, particularly in Uganda, only materialised as a result of domestic political shifts and attempts by donors to align their advocacy efforts with the interests and ideas of ruling elites (see also Grebe and Mubiru (2014) and Grebe (2014) on Uganda; and Kabandula and Seekings (2016) and Siachiwena (2016) on Zambia).
It is not just the type of political settlement that matters, however, but also the way in which the shifting nature of power relations that underpin them can generate perceived threats to the legitimacy and stability of the ruling coalition. The willingness and urgency of elites to extend social assistance can be linked directly to the level of threat that they perceived themselves to be under. The response has been weakest where the political threat to ruling elites was weak, as in Zambia and Uganda, and highest where the threat was perceived to be high (Ethiopia and Rwanda). During the mid-2000s, when donors started to promote social assistance in Uganda and Zambia, the respective political elites did not face a significant crisis that threatened their legitimacy or hold on power. The main motivation for political elites in these contexts was to secure local-level political support in the context of certain lower-level shifts within the political settlement, rather than cope with threats to the deal itself. For example, in Zambia, the direct trigger for increasing expenditure on social assistance was a crisis in the agricultural subsidy system which had constituted the primary mode of rent distribution used by elites to maintain legitimacy and political support in rural areas (see Mason et al. 2013).
In contrast, the strongest cases of elite commitment to social assistance derive from perceived threats—even existential threats—to the political settlement, to which social assistance is seen as a potential solution. Here, elites have been motivated by broad concerns about political legitimacy, as well as mitigating specific threats to the ruling coalition that originate in distributional crises. In addition to the ‘Armageddons’ that political elites in Ethiopia perceived themselves to be threatened by, Rwanda’s ruling elite was catalysed by the failure to translate economic growth into a reduction of poverty or inequality, thereby threatening the coalition’s claims to be promoting inclusive development and building a post-ethnic society. The case of Botswana suggests that these findings hold across time. The chapter by Seekings shows how the prolonged drought that the country experienced in the 1960s helped instigate a response that would set in place a process of building the welfare regime apparent today. This crisis coincided with a critical political moment within the process of state formation in Botswana, with the new ruling coalition keen to establish its developmentalist and nation-building credentials, in part to assuage concerns that a certain element of the Tswana elite would seek to govern in sectional rather than national interests. In Botswana, as in South Africa, the welfare state became a major pillar of the legitimacy not only of democratically elected government but also of the democratic institutions themselves.
The chapters on Lesotho and Tanzania also incorporate aspects of the adapted political settlements framework to explain the social assistance policy process. In both cases, dominant party settings provided sufficient stability and long-term horizons to enable coherent decision-making on social assistance. In Tanzania, in a dominant party setting the adoption of a clear productivist developmental vision and an emphasis on self-reliance has favoured productivist forms of social assistance, requiring labour supply from households and other conditions, rather than pure income transfers. Meanwhile in Lesotho, the transition from an extended period of highly unstable competitive politics to a more stable dominant party system following reform to the electoral system provided the ruling elite with an opportunity to introduce a social pension.
Download a free, open access copy of The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa.