Unit 1: The primacy of politics in development

Unit 1: the primacy of politics to development

The importance of getting politics into development (again?)

A certain apolitical flare impregnates development:  development  is a profession which implies that it can be achieved through the deployment of uniquely technical skills. NGOs, which constitute major implementers of development projects, base their identity on their nongovernmental character, although many of them obtain much of their funding from governments. Major moves in the development agenda, such as the Millenium Declaration Goals and the Paris Declaration, remain largely apolitical in their approach (Unsworth, 2009: 884). But, in a rather schizoid manner, this professionalization and technocrat-ization coexists with claims that “political will”, and/or “good governance” are necessary preconditions for sound and sustainable development.

This state of affairs has historical roots: The first contemporary development policy was the Marshall plan promoted by the US as a means to ensuring economic growth, peace and stability with the ultimate goal of containing communism (Beswick and Jackson, 2011: 70). In essence the Marshall plan was a security policy. The securitisation of development aid – securitisation meaning the classification of a certain issue as relevant for the survival of a human collective in the political arena; (McDonald, 2008: 566)- persisted during the Cold War: authoritarian and crony regimes were supported by the West to obtain their alignment in the global struggle against communism, regardless of the degree of disrespect they showed for human rights and democracy (Clarke, 2001). all of which entailed the consolidation of ruling elites more accountable to the West than to its own citizens (Moore, 2001: 387; Lockwood, 73-85),

Security policies during the Cold War also explain why political discussions within newly independent countries on the contents of and the paths to development were mutilated from the outset: development was capitalism according to the West, communism according to the East; and, for both the East and the West development was economic development and did not necessarily include women: Industrialization and economic growth were considered by both sides as its main engine : the rest, including democratic change, would naturally follow. (Fritz and Menocal, 2007: 5)-. Thus, development assistance was limited to financial support in the form of big infrastructure and productive projects that were expected to trigger economic growth. This modality meant no danger for ruling elites, but, on the contrary, legitimated them in the eyes of their peoples.

Hence the Cold War politics left politics out of the development stage: politics were not visible in the development business, but were in reality determining from the backstage who the actors were and what would they say. Since the East-West struggle was so profoundly determining development during the Cold War, a fundamental change in the primacy of politics to development pattern had to happen once this struggle finished in 1991. Donors were now rather interested in ensuring the smooth functioning  of the triumphant capitalist model all over the world, in order to attain a higher degree of prosperity for their own countries (Aliyev, 2011; Beswick and Jackson, 2011:8; Davidson, 2012: 128-134)

In order to “correcting” this mistake the development agenda was enlarged to embrace a new and salient item called good governance, meant as the building of the institutional setting that would enhance economic growth. In a few years, good governance became omnipresent in development two ways: (i) political conditions imposed on recipient countries for aid delivery and of (ii) projects specifically aimed at institution building. As a sort of ratification of this new approach, the World Bank introduces in 1997 its influential World Development Report as follows “This report shows that the1 determining factor behind these contrasting developments is the effectiveness of the state” (WB, 1997: 1)

Good governance was too narrowly focused on erasing the differences between the “failing regimes” of the South and the “prosperous regimes” of the North through a copy-pasting of the Northern systems into reports and political conditionality. Hence, in spite of this new focus on political realities, mainstream development policies and discourses remained solidly grounded on a technocratic Western oriented approach that took little account of each country’s social, cultural and political realities: “The barely submerged structural model and ideal of politics, economics and society on which all notions of governance rests is nothing less than that of western liberal (or social) capitalist democracy (Leftwich, 2000: 121). It could be claimed that the governance paradigm does not introduce politics into the picture, but rather occupies it only with polities. In essence the modernisation paradigm is kept intact except for the inversion of its sequencing: it would be good governance -political transformation- that would trigger growth -economic transformation- and not vice-versa.

The good governance approach still constitutes the dominating account of the inter-linkages between politics and development. Its influence together with the preceding securitisation pattern explain the a-political inclination of the development business. Additionally we are witnessing today a coming back of some Cold War like rhetoric facilitated by the so called Global War against Terror (the presence of an international bad that menaces our way of life requiring all possible efforts to stop it). As an example the document National Strategy for Combating Terrorism released in 2003 short after the September 11th in its introduction “We will not triumph solely or even primarily through military might. We must fight terrorist networks, and all those who support their efforts to spread fear around the world, using every instrument of national power— diplomatic, economic, law enforcement, financial, information, intelligence, and military” (Bush, 2003: 1) “The US National Security Strategy of 2002 (…) listed development alongside diplomacy and defense as the three central components of national security strategy, a tripartite approach designated the three D’s” (Howell and Lind: 2008, 15).

One could claim that this influence waters down when it comes to projects in the field; that NGO work is able to mitigate the influence of those factors certainly influential at the global level, but neutral at the implementation stage. Unfortunately, this is not true: Development workers, are constantly dealing with donors’ politics, for most of their funds, come from the OECD states and/or multilateral agencies who are the ones setting the agenda.

We cannot lose out of sight that development is itself a political project, (Hickey, 2008: 350) since it describes the general improvement of a society towards a better status quo for its members. Or, as J. Adrian Leftwhich puts it “development (…) is inescapably about change -economic growth, social transformation and political transition-” (Leftwhich, 2008: 10). Every average development worker who has managed the implementation of projects in the field knows -at least intuitively- that power issues are inseparable from his/her work, no matter how non-political one thinks the content of a project is: Every sustainable transformation of a society, whether at the local, national or regional level, entails a transformation in the way the power is distributed, and thus implicitly a bargaining with power-holders who will tend to align with the status quo. Right now while you read this there are hundreds of reproductive health projects going on in different parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where the main problem that stops women from going to the health centres is their subordinate role in decision taking within the family and the society.

The a-political flare of development is thus no good news: placing politics within the actual development business, is a complex task, requiring a careful dissection of overarching political projects, as well as meso- and macro level interventions. But a crucial one.


Aliyev, H. (2011) ‘Neo-Realism and Humanitarian Action’, available at internet in The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, http://sites.tufts.edu/jha/archives/1173

Beswick D. and Jackson, P. (2011) Conflict Security and Development. An Introduction, London, Routledge

Bush, G: W. (2003) Introduction to the National Strategy for Combatting Terrorism

Clarke, J. F (2001) ‘Foreign Policy Making in Central Africa: Regime Security in a New Context’, in African Foreign Policies: Power and Process, Gilbert M. Khadiagala and Terrence Lyons (eds.). London, Lynne Reinner: pp. 67-86.

Davidson, J. (2012) ‘Humanitarian Intervention as Liberal Imperialism: A Force for Good?, in POLIS Journal, Vol. 7, Summer 2012: 128-134

Fritz, V. and Menocal, A.R. (2007) ‘Developmental States in the New Millennium: Concepts and Challenges for a New Aid Agenda’, in Development Policy Review, 25(5): pp. 531-552

Hickey, S (2008) ‘The return of politics in development studies I: getting lost within the poverty agenda?, Progress in Development Studies 8(4)

Howell, J. and Lind, J. (2008) Changing donor policy and practice on civil society in the post 9-11 aid context, NGPA Working Paper Series, London School of Economics, London.

Leftwhich A. (2000) States of Development: On the Primacy of Politics in Development, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Leftwhich, A. (2008) ‘Developmental states, effective states and poverty reduction: The primacy of politics’ UNRISD, Geneva.

Lockwood, Michael (2006), The State they’re in: An agenda for international action on poverty in Africa, Rugby: Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd.

McDonald, M. (2008) ‘Securitisation and the Construction of Security’ European Journal of International Relations, 14(4): 563-587

Moore, Michael (2001), ‘Political Underdevelopment: What Causes ‘Bad Governance’ in Public Management Review, 3(3)

Unsworth, S. (2010) ‘What’s politics got to do with it? Why donors find it so hard to come to terms with politics, and why it matters’ in Journal of International Development, 21(6): pp. 883-895

World Bank (1997) World Development Report. The State in a Changing World, The World Bank and Oxford University Press, Washington DC available at http://wdronline.worldbank.org/worldbank/a/c.html/world_development_report_1997/abstract/WB.0-1952-1114-6.abstract

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