Researching the politics of development



The politics of regional inequality in sub-Saharan Africa: Insights from Ghana and Uganda


This project aims to deepen our understanding of the structural underpinnings of spatial inequality from a comparative perspective. It adopts a political settlements approach to investigate the role of politics and power relations in shaping policy reforms and public investment patterns, and how this shapes spatial development disparities in two sub-Saharan African countries.


Ghana and Uganda have been selected as case studies for this research, on the basis of their long histories of regional inequality along a North-South divide. The two countries also represent different types of political settlement in Levy’s (2012) terms, with Uganda experiencing a dominant party system, and Ghana, a competitive clientelist political environment. This distinction allows us to investigate whether different political settlement trajectories generate different prospects for redressing the problem of spatial inequality. Both countries have also implemented affirmative action programmes within their disadvantaged Northern regions – the Savannah Accelerated Development (SADA) in Ghana, and the Northern Ugandan Social Action Fund (NUSAF).

Research questions

  1. How has the nature and type of political settlement shaped the political recognition and socio-economic entitlements experienced by disadvantaged northern regions over time?
  2. In what ways have the changing electoral dynamics in Ghana and Uganda contributed to shaping elite commitment and capacity towards a reduction of regional inequalities?
  3. Do the actual implementation of policies and programmes towards spatially inclusive development play out in different ways under dominant and competitive political settlements and across different policy domains? If so, what explains this?
  4. What roles do transnational factors and sub-national political dynamics play in shaping prospects for overcoming regional development disparities in these countries?
  5. What are the dominant and competing ideas in the formulation and actual implementation of policies aimed at redressing regional inequality in these countries?

Methods and research design

The research entails a three-stage analysis:
Stage 1: Tracking the historical evolution of political settlements.
Stage 2: Unpacking the current political settlement.
Stage 3: Analysing the spatial impact of national policies and regional investments over time.
Specifically, this involves a focus on:

  • national and sub-national analyses of political settlements relating to the evolution and persistence of regional inequality from a historical perspective;
  • the political inclusion of regional elites within senior governmental and bureaucratic positions and the ruling coalition more broadly;
  • regional social provisioning expenditure over time, with a focus on education;
  • productive investments, focusing on the cotton and dairy sectors in Uganda, and the rice and cocoa sub-sectors in Ghana; and
  • the politics of implementing specific targeted initiatives aimed at reducing regional inequalities (NUSAF in Uganda and SADA in Ghana).

We combine qualitative and quantitative methods in undertaking this research, although with a greater role for the former. These include analysis of existing quantitative data sets, archival research and documentary analysis, elite interviews with politicians, donors and relevant civil society organisations, and focus group discussions with beneficiary communities.

How does this project fit within ESID’s research agenda?

The overall project falls within ESID’s politics of identity and equity research theme but also has cross-cutting relevance for ESID’s work on the politics of growth and natural resources – through its focus on productive investments, and for ESID’s research into the politics of social provision – in relation to the focus on education.


Lead ResearcherDr Abdul-Gafaru AbdulaiThe University of Ghana
ResearcherDr Badru BukenyaMakerere University, Uganda
ResearcherProfessor William MuhumuzaMakerere University, Uganda


Journal articles
Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai (2017). ‘The political economy of regional inequality in Ghana: Do political settlements matter?The European Journal of Development Research 29(1).
Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai (2016). ‘Rethinking spatial inequality in development: The primacy of power relations‘. Journal of International Development 29(3): 386-403.
ESID working papers
Badru Bukenya and Frederick Golooba-Mutebi (2019). ‘Political settlements and the delivery of maternal health services in rural Uganda‘. ESID Working Paper 113.
Badru Bukenya and William Muhumuza (2017). ‘The politics of core public sector reform in Uganda: Behind the facade‘. ESID Working Paper 85.
Sam Hickey and Badru Bukenya (2016). ‘The politics of promoting social cash transfers in Uganda‘. ESID Working Paper 69.
Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai and David Hulme (2014). ‘The politics of regional inequality in Ghana: State elites, donors and PRSPs‘. ESID Working Paper 41.
Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai and Sam Hickey (2014). ‘Rethinking the politics of development in Africa? How the “political settlement” shapes resource allocation in Ghana‘. ESID Working Paper 38.

Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai (2014). ‘Rethinking spatial inequalities in development: The primacy of politics and power relations‘. ESID Working Paper 29.
Badru Bukenya and Pablo Yanguas (2013). ‘Building state capacity for inclusive development: The politics of public sector reform‘. ESID Working Paper 25.