Researching the politics of development

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The politics of state capacity and development in Africa: Reframing and researching ‘pockets of effectiveness’

Pockets of Effectiveness Working Paper 1
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Sam Hickey
The role of bureaucratic ‘pockets of effectiveness’ (PoEs) in driving development is generating renewed interest within development studies and, to an extent, development policy. Existing research on PoEs emphasises that politics plays a leading role in shaping the emergence and sustainability of high-performing public sector organisations. However, the field as yet lacks a clear sense of the conditions under which this happens, partly because of a tendency to see PoEs as ‘islands’ that are divorced from their political context, and partly because there has been no attempt as yet to undertake systematic comparative analysis of PoEs across different types of political context. This paper sets out the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of a new project that seeks to address these problems within the context of sub-Saharan Africa. Drawing on an alignment of political settlements analysis with critical theories of state power and African politics, the paper argues that PoEs are both shaped by, and help to reproduce, particular forms of politics and institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. This means that PoEs are not simply interesting objects of enquiry in and of themselves, but also because they can reveal a good deal about how the competing logics of regime survival, state-building and democratisation are playing out in Africa and what implications this has for development. The paper proposes a methodological approach for identifying and exploring PoEs and briefly summarises the results of the expert surveys that we undertook in our four initial countries, namely Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia, which were chosen to represent different types of political settlement (We later added Kenya, with funding from ESID). These surveys resulted in our project focusing mainly on the economic technocracy as the key domain within which PoEs have flourished, particularly in terms of ministries of finance, central banks and revenue authorities, along with some other interesting outliers and underlying processes of state-building. Further papers from this project will include in-depth case studies of these specific PoEs and processes in each country, synthesised country analyses and comparative overviews.