Researching the politics of development



Political settlements applied to urban development: 5 key questions

15 August 2014
By Kate Pruce and Pablo Yanguas.
In July ESID hosted a small research workshop devoted to the question of whether and how the concept of ‘political settlements’ can be deployed to study urban poverty and development. Much of the discussion pivoted around presentations by Tom Goodfellow, who has recently published an article about the political settlement in Rwanda and specifically Kigali, and by Diana Mitlin and Gayatri Menon, whose ongoing work – including their ESID project on urban poverty in India – raises a number of issues about the applicability of the political settlements model to developing country cities. Here are five of the key questions raised:

1. Do urban settlements mirror national settlements?

Political-settlements analysis tends to look at the national level of policy-making, focusing on national-level elites; however, it is important to consider how the settlement is realised spatially throughout a country, including at the city level.  In his piece, Tom Goodfellow observes that cities can embody and reflect the political settlement, particularly a capital city in a relatively small country such as Kigali, where national politics tends to dominate. This is because factors related to the city form important sources of power, and formal and informal institutions can be played out through the form and function of the city. On the other hand, in countries like India urban authority structures can be flatter than national and regional ones, which makes the political settlement more visible in cities than in the country as a whole.
Applying the political-settlements lens to cities requires a redefinition of the set of actors under scrutiny, giving rise to questions of power and agency. Moreover, even when national elites map directly onto capital elites, urban policy environments tend to be more fluid and amenable to change than national ones, perhaps giving greater scope for shifts in the balance of power. These insights may require us to specify the political settlement at each level, examine the interaction between these levels and consider the implications of these interactions. For example, are the tensions between central, state and city governments in India caused by different political settlements operating at each level?

2. Can a political settlement be studied at a single point in time?

Cities and urban development policy highlight the challenge of observing a political settlement in time: in particular, whether we can observe a settlement at a single point in time – perhaps a critical juncture – or whether we need historical analysis to fully understand settlement dynamics; a temporal dimension becomes crucial for illustrating how the political settlement is (re)constituted. A good example of this is South Africa: is the post-apartheid political settlement still in place or has it changed? If so, at what point did this change occur and how can it be identified?
Even the notion of ‘critical juncture’ is not free from contention: should research focus on junctures in terms of balance of power, or in terms of institutions? And what would be the basis for prioritising one over the other? When formal institutions do not match the balance of power in Kigali, for instance, the government either changes those institutions or stalls until it can resolve the underlying issues that threaten the political settlement. Through this process the government manages the balance of power – by removing elites if necessary – leading to a complex and fluid institutional framework.

3. Is urban power always visible?

This raises the question of whether political settlements can be empirically observed at all, as bargaining and negotiations cannot be easily discerned from the outside. Perhaps the balance of power can be observed as it manifests itself through the relationship between the settlement and the institutions. But questions about balance of power call our attention to the definition of ‘power’ and ‘powerful actors’.
Ownership of land and control of ideas are just two of the sources of power in cities; ‘the deal’ is ultimately shaped by a combination of resources, ideas and status. But these factors are particularly difficult to determine in some urban contexts where power can be purposefully invisible. This highlights the need to include a dimension of visibility in the political-settlements framework, asking who is visible, who is forced to be invisible, and who chooses to be invisible.

4. How does a political settlement demarcate politics?

Conventional analyses begin by ‘mapping out’ the political settlement, determining who is a powerful enough actor based on the conditions outlined above. But urban centres in which the poor often risk disenfranchisement pose the question: who is in and who is out? The political settlement may serve as a boundary between political and apolitical identity, requiring a more critical perspective of power and the implications for inclusiveness.
The common understanding of the term points to the political settlement as a precondition for politics, but we could posit an alternative conception in which the settlement demarcates the discourse of politics and frames all debate, which makes it crucial for any notion of legitimacy. This can include keeping things off the table, which is another example of the use of power and the dimension of visibility.

5. Does political-settlement analysis help us deal with inequality?

In particular, the question here is one of stability bias: a political settlement model tells us how a balance of power gives rise to a particular set of institutions, but not how that balance comes about or changes. This has implications for research, which can also fall into stability bias. What does stability mean, especially in urban contexts where things change rapidly? In developing country cities, where the poor are often left out of the political settlement, this kind of analysis tells us very little about possible paths to greater inclusion. There may be different forms of inclusion – for example on ethnic grounds rather than poverty – so can our analysis tell us when inclusion is actually developmental?
The demand for practical and ethical outcomes requires us to imagine ways in which political-settlement analysis can support social justice projects, instead of serving as a conceptual alternative to hegemony which projects an image of solidarity and coherence but is in fact anti-poor.