Researching the politics of development



Clues to a better governance agenda?

05 March 2015
By Sam Hickey
David Booth’s recent blog on ‘Five myths about governance and development’ raised a number of significant challenges to what remains of the good governance agenda, and spoke directly to ESID’s own research agenda. My posting on David’s blog suggested that ESID’s own work largely supported these claims, particularly work by Kunal Sen and Lant Pritchett on how inclusive institutions may not be required to achieve rapid economic growth as long as ‘ordered deals’ are in place, something we’ve been exploring in a range of different contexts.
Our forthcoming work on oil governance in Ghana and Uganda also suggests that state capacity, rather than democracy and accountability, might be the key to governments being able to secure good deals from international oil companies. This kind of finding, along with long-standing research on developmental states, explains why ESID researchers have been lobbying for state capacity to form a central role in discussions over governance within the SDG process.
However, I also argued that there is a danger in over-emphasising the extent to which countries must achieve economic progress before democratic forms of governance emerge. I suggested that we need to be much clearer about the precise mechanisms through which this occurs in different contexts. Does economic transformation automatically lead to better governance, as Mushtaq Khan claims in his work on political settlements, or does this depend on the sectors in which growth is based, the groups that get empowered and the coalitions they form?
Ongoing work by ESID’s Kunal Sen and Matt Tyce on Malaysia and Thailand (ESID Working Paper forthcoming in 2015) suggests that, even where significant levels of structural transformation have occurred, these countries are still a distance away from rule-based democracy and impersonal rule of law institutions. This is in large part due to the nature of their PS.
Other comparative evidence is also instructive on this: the great study by Sandbrook et al. on ‘Social democracy in the global periphery’ shows that the role of agricultural smallholders can be critical in driving up governance performance: until processes of agricultural modernisation take hold and smallholders become a more powerful socio-economic force capable of pressurising governments to deliver protection and public goods, then the clientelistic delivery of subsidies as private or club goods will remain.
This chimes with recent research led by Sophie King on how smallholders have achieved greater gains in empowerment and accountability than have mainstream approaches to civil society strengthening generally promoted under the good governance agenda. This research also offers a useful corrective to the often elitist assumptions of political settlements theory that change only comes from the top down.
The clues to a better governance agenda are there: we just need to keep testing the growing evidence base that is emerging within different contexts to identify the different mechanisms and interventions at play here.