Researching the politics of development
Varieties of state-building in Africa: Elites, ideas and the politics of public sector reform
Working paper 89
Why do some states in Africa seem to be stuck in a spiral of corruption and institutional weakness? Why do others somehow build effective bureaucracies that are able and willing to tackle the challenges of development? The public sector remains the inescapable anchor of development, whether for good or ill, but our understanding of the politics of public sector reform remains shackled by concepts that do not allow for variation or change over time. This paper presents a theoretical framework for understanding variations in public sector reform (PSR): centring the analysis on the intersection of power relations and ideas, the paper shows how the stability of a country’s elite settlement and the coherence of its developmental ideology interact with reform ideas in the PSR policy domain. This framework is explored through a structured-focused comparison of reform experiences in three Sub-Saharan African countries with different elite settlements: competitive Ghana; weakly dominant Uganda; and dominant Rwanda. In Ghana, where successive regimes have focused on political control for partisan purposes, it has been quick reforms compatible with top-down control that have achieved political traction. In Uganda, high-visibility reforms were introduced to secure donor funding, as long as they did not threaten the ruling coalition’s power. In Rwanda, lastly, the regime has fostered and protected various public sector reforms because it envisioned them as instruments for domestic legitimation as constituent elements of an impartial developmental state. In combination, policy domain, elite time horizons, and ideational fit allow us to move beyond blanket statements about isomorphic mimicry or neopatrimonialism, and towards a more nuanced understanding of the varieties of state-building in Africa.