Researching the politics of development



There are no 'blank-slate policymakers': Mapping the elites of development

23 June 2014.
By Pablo Yanguas and Antonio Savoia.
Political and policy-making elites are at the centre of the challenges of inclusive development: their commitment constrains the menu of potentially inclusive policies, whilst their capacity determines the chances that these will ever be fully implemented. Arguments about the causal role of elites revolve around whether they are either inclusive or extractive, patrimonial or developmental (or both). Yet we know surprisingly little about what makes some elites more developmental than others.
Conventional arguments about elite commitment focus either on the personality traits and personal background of specific leaders, or alternatively they explore the structural features of the political settlements that elites inhabit. However, the analysis of implementation processes in developing countries highlights the limitations of either personalising or depersonalising politics: choices about policy as well as its implementation are often shaped by the constellation of political and policy-making elites at the very top. The current state of the literature suggests that the next step in trying to understand the role of elites in economic development would be to bring into the analysis the specific characteristics of elite members: What are their defining features? Have they changed over time?
In a way this emerging research agenda is inspired by classic elite-centric analysts like Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto or C. Wright Mills. To quote from Mill’s The Power Elite (1956):

The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. …
In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them.

ESID‘s new project on development elites, led by Antonio Savoia, aims to generate valid and reliable data on the educational and professional background of key political and policy-making elites in developing countries. Through these data the project hopes to unpack many of the implicit assumptions recurrently made by development agencies, in particular the connection between international development experience and commitment to national reform, and the connection between higher educational attainment and capacity for policy implementation.
There are no ‘blank slate policy-makers’, and through this new research ESID seeks to understand what features of the elite make them more likely to promote state effectiveness and inclusive service-delivery.