Unit 1: The primacy of politics in development and theories of political development

This blog is about the relationship between politics and development. I will aim to give a brief overview of my interpretation of the relationship between the two, will summarise the evolution of dominant themes and ideas in development politics since the 1950s and will look at the implications of my interpretation of the relationship for the international development community. I hope you enjoy the read!

The primacy of politics

For me, politics is a fundamental determinant of development. In fact I would say it is at the heart of  all processes of development. You might question how can it be that politics is more important than other factors like security, health, the environment, food or education in development? I see politics as a cross-cutting issue that feeds into all these aspects of development and more; from the provision of public services to the maintenance of state security and governance processes. I would argue that politics can shape how a state chooses to organise itself and determine what (or who) will be supported with the state’s resources. Governments (whether democratic or otherwise) are concerned with staying in power and therefore their decisions are based at least partly on political factors, whether that’s in terms of policies designed to appeal to – or extend – their traditional support banks or policies intended to preserve the security of the state.

Adrian Leftwich, the British political philosopher, would agree with this assessment of the relationship between politics and development. He argues that developmental theory and practice has largely neglected the critical importance – or ‘primacy’ – of politics “in shaping state goals, capacity and developmental outcomes” (Leftwich, 2008:3). Understanding development from a political perspective is therefore essential because it helps us to appreciate how and why decisions are made and how power is distributed in a country.

Reflections on the evolution of political theory and the implications for development

Despite this assessment of development, with politics at its core, Leftwich has argued that “the fundamental questions of politics and political philosophy have rarely been seen as relevant in the analysis of the politics of development” (Leftwich, 2000:13). This is a peculiar and interesting reflection that I will now try and unpick by looking at the dominant political theories that have held sway at different times since the 1950s. These theories have shaped ideas about how to drive development and, in particular, the role of the state in doing so.

  • Modernisation theory (1950s and 1960s) saw a single path of political development to the Western democratic model. This one-size-fits-all approach has been widely discredited in serious academic and policy circles but has remained alarmingly influential.

  • Dependency theory (popular in the 1960s and 1970s) cast the development challenge in a different way, placing the emphasis on international barriers to development as opposed to domestic ones. For dependency theorists the structure of the international system is tilted very much in favour of a selection of wealthy countries at the expense of all others. As such, modernisation theory and dependency theory place great emphasis on economic factors, rather than political ones, as the key determinants of development.

  • In the 1980s and 1990s, as right-leaning governments came to power in the UK, USA and several other key countries, a neo-liberal political philosophy emerged which advocated for a minimal state and a reliance on markets to drive resource allocation (Stiglitz, 2002). Politics was, therefore, a minor factor. Scholars like Gilman have said that the policies of this period – the so-called Washington Consensus – saw a resurgence of modernisation theory and point to the transition of former Soviet states to illustrate the point (2003).

  • Good governance rose in prominence in development circles during the 1990s and 2000s. Unlike neoliberalism, it acknowledges the importance of the role of the state, but like neoliberalism, did not attach much importance to politics.

  • In more recent years, politics has risen up the development agenda. Acemoglu and Robinson have convincingly argued that it is “man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or the lack of it)” (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012).

This analysis suggests that Leftwich’s argument that wider political forces have not been given sufficient importance in the politics of development is fair. Recent developments in the academic and popular literature on the subject are, however, encouraging. It is interesting to note that each of the above themes are still very visible in different parts of the development community. Some commentators still cast the development challenge very much in modernisation theory terms. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2009, Inglehart and Welzel praised the thinking behind the Bush Administration’s attempts to install democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq because, they argue, it will set in train a clear process of development (Inglehart and Weizel, 2009). At the other end of the spectrum, it seems to me that campaigning organisations like War on Want present the development challenge in a way that echoes the dependency theorists of the 1970s (for an example see The Hunger Games by War on Want, 2012).

Politics in international development

Politics is also a critical driving factor in the international development system, by which I mean the agencies, institutions and resources of the international aid system. While some bodies, like UN agencies and other multilateral institutions, claim a greater degree of political impartiality than other actors, I would argue that decisions made by such bodies are inherently political because they are influenced by world events and even have interest groups within them that represent political viewpoints.

Some donor governments – such as the UK – have introduced measures to try and de-politicise decision making around the allocation of international aid flows. The UK International Development Act, signed into law in 2002, specifically requires British governments to use aid money only for the purposes of reducing poverty (UK Parliament, 2002) while DFID’s bilateral aid review sought to make allocation decisions based on need and the potential impact of UK Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) (DFID, 2011). The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has praised the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) for creating ‘firewalls’ such as this to restrict the ways in which UK aid money can be spent (ODI: 2012). However, this does not preclude aid money from being channelled to countries in which the UK has a strategic interest, and while there have been recent increases in UK aid to less ‘strategically important’ countries like Ethiopia and Nepal, countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen have, it is arguable, received disproportionate flows of UK ODA in recent years (OECD, 2013). This implies that politics is a key determinant of the allocation of international aid flows. To me, as long as agencies are financed using public (ie. taxpayer’s) money it is difficult to genuinely de-politicise aid spending.

Many people working in development – as I do – like to see their work as technocratic and try to take steps to remove the politics from what they do. As I set out above, in my view this takes a very narrow view of what ‘politics’ actually means. Indeed, in an assessment of two participatory development projects in India Vasudha Chhotray (from the University of East Anglia) found that far from circumventing politics, such projects actually served to reflect and even reinforce existing power relations in a community (Chhotray, 2004). So, for me this means that development practitioners need to be aware that their work is inherently political and can have unintended consequences if politics are not considered from the outset.

Having been criticised for not taking sufficient account of politics in the past (see Hickey, 2008, Unsworth, 2009) DFID has taken steps to enhance the level of political and political-economy analysis required before an intervention is financed. It’s current business case process requires that “The case for any intervention in a country should always be rooted in analysis of the relevant context – in particular all interventions should refer to political economy and social context” (DFID, 2011). The extent to which this analysis at the project design stage carries through to implementation is a matter of debate, but it would appear to suggest an improving trend of recognition of the importance of politics in development. Despite this theme, Hickey has argued that the Millennium Development Goals – which govern a lot of the work that development finance institutions do – seek to de-politicise development and continue to present it in technocratic terms (2008). Therefore, while it may be difficult to disconnect politics from decision making about resource flows, agencies such as DFID are taking steps to ensure that politics is considered and taken account of in the design of projects.

Case study: India

As the title of this blog suggests, I live in India at the moment. The political system here is an interesting case study on the subject of the relationship between politics and development. The current governing alliance (the UPA) likes to market itself as a pro-poor party and the main party within the alliance – the Congress – use their Gandhi-Nehru roots to define their pro-poor ideology and demonstrate their ‘development’ credentials. The UPA has invested huge resources in public sector initiatives (like PDS and NREGA) aimed at reducing the enormous levels of poverty that still remain in the country. As a result they command significant support from the rural poor. However, these initiatives have been the subject of significant criticism as their efficacy as a tool for development has been widely questioned and criticised and the evidence base upon which the policies are founded is limited (Jagannathan, 2012). This leads critics to argue that the UPA’s social schemes are more about politics than development.

At the other end of the political spectrum you have the opposition BJP which – when last in power – liked to propagate a different vision of development politics which talked about ‘India Shining’ as a powerful emerging global power. Their emphasis was very different. They talked about Indian business and the private sector and didn’t like to deal in the language of poverty or development. Despite this, poverty levels have fallen under both brands of government, so the efficacy of different models for development is an interesting – and contested – debate. I think this quite starkly illustrates some of the key issues in this unit, particularly around the importance of the role of the state in development.

An upside down view of governance?

While studying for this unit I read Unsworth’s Upside down view of governance (2010), and it struck a chord with me. She argues that traditional donor-recipient relationships are currently governed by the principle of using aid to ‘buy’ reforms or behaviours that are viewed by donors as being good. She encourages donors to turn their focus to “more indirect ways of influencing the interests and incentives of local actors” (Unsworth, 2010). I agree that donors could do more to think about development in ways beyond aid. I have often thought about the trade reform agenda in this way. If donors were willing to take more serious action on trade reform then the demand or need for initiatives ‘bought’ using aid might diminish as countries become more capable of trading their way out of poverty. The reason Unsworth’s idea chimed with me was that I had not thought about extending such a line of thought to other aspects of development policy beyond trade. One might argue that innovations like climate pricing are doing exactly this, but I feel such methods could be rolled out more widely, particularly in a globalised world where one nation’s policy decisions can impact on many others’. This entails thinking about the interactions between states in a different way that I found very interesting and motivating.



Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J. (2012) Why nations fail.

Chhotray, V. (2004) The Negation of Politics in Participatory Development Projects, Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh. Development and Change Volume 35, Issue 2, pages 327–352

DFID (2009) Political Economy Analysis – How to Note (Online) http://www.stabilisationunit.gov.uk/stabilisation-and-conflict-resources/thematic/doc_details/73-political-economy-analysis-how-to-note.html

DFID (2011) Business Case How To Note (Online) http://www.ids.ac.uk/files/dmfile/DFID_HowtoNote_BusinessCase_Aug2011.pdf

DFID (2011) Bilateral Aid Review results (Online) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/137265/BAR-MAR-country-summaries-web.pdf.pdf

Gilman, N. (2003) Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America.

Hickey, S. (2008) ‘The return of politics in development studies I : getting lost within the poverty agenda’, Progress in Development Studies. 8(4) : 349-58.

Inglehart, R. and Welzel, C. (2009) How development leads to democracy http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/64821/ronald-inglehart-and-christian-welzel/how-development-leads-to-democracy

Jagannathan, R. (2012) Here’s evidence that NREGA is actually destroying jobs (Online) http://www.firstpost.com/economy/heres-evidence-that-nrega-is-actually-destroying-jobs-226987.html  

Leftwich, A. (2000) States of development: On the primacy of politics in development

Leftwich, A. (2008) Developmental states, effective states and poverty reduction: The primacy of politics

ODI (2012) The UK’s approach to linking development and security (Online) www.odi.org.uk/resources/docs/7658.pdf

OECD (2013) Aid statistics (Online) http://www.oecd.org/dac/stats/usersguidetothecreditorreportingsystemcrsaidactivitiesdatabase.htm

Stiglitz, J. (2002) Globalization and Its Discontents

UK Parliament (2002) UK International Development Act

Unsworth, S. (2009) What’s politics got to do with it? Why donors find it so hard to come to terms with politics, and why this matters. Journal of International Development, 21:883-894.

Unsworth S. (2010) An upside down view of governance (Online) http://www2.ids.ac.uk/gdr/cfs/pdfs/AnUpside-downViewofGovernance.pdf

War on Want (2012) The Hunger Games (Online) http://www.waronwant.org/about-us/publications/doc_download/102-the-hunger-games


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