Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Developmental States: what they are and why we need them

Time (GMT +00) 12:15 13:30


Adrian Leftwich, Senior Lecturer, University of York


David Booth, ODI

Simon Maxwell, ODI

Simon Maxwell opened the meeting series with the observation that, although the role of politics in creating an environment conducive to development is not a new subject, recent discussions about the scaling-up of aid mean that it has become a particularly acute issue. The objective of this series is to apply lessons from the available academic literature on the developmental state to these policy questions. He noted that this is an area central to the work programme of the Poverty and Public Policy Group at ODI.

Adrian Leftwich opened by stating that one of his central arguments would be that successful state building depended on the political demand generated within a polity.

Leftwich advocated for development to be understood as a political process. Both external and internal political factors can constrain or enable the development process. Institutions, increasingly acknowledged to be critical for development, are established and maintained through political processes. Over the past five years, there has been growing recognition within both academic and policy circles of the need to 'bring politics back in'.

Leftwich presented two conceptualisations of politics:

There was the perception of politics as an alien process undertaken by politicians pursuing their own personal interests or agendas. Leftwich disagreed, claiming political processes are intrinsic to the activities of all social groups;

Political processes - understood as the processes of negotiation concerning the distribution and use of resources - were usually expressed as standardised, predictable rules of the game that are understood and accepted at all levels. Leftwich argued that the question we should be asking in relation to the political processes of development is: what are the rules by which a society decides how resources should be distributed?

Leftwich argued that complexity within developing countries frequently stems not from the presence of a multiplicity of interests - which is a characteristic of all polities - but from the existence of multiple and conflicting rules. By contrast, stable polities are usually governed by one set or complementary sets of rules.

Leftwich described power as the most important concept for understanding political processes. However, it is a difficult concept to both define and measure. Leftwich suggested that power should be thought of more in relational than quantitative terms and as a dynamic concept that operates within both formal and informal (and both internal and external) relationships. Identifying where power lay is therefore fundamental.

Leftwich moved next to a consideration of the concepts and ideas that had been involved in the formation and functioning of the classic developmental states of East Asia. He suggested that they had shared a number of defining features:

The politics of these states had been developmentally driven and their development objectives had been driven by political concerns;

A perceived external threat had been a significant incentive for the formation of developmental states based on political and economic nationalism;

An external threat had also provided a powerful incentive for elite coherence, unlikely to have been generated by internal demand alone.

Discussions about the concentration of power, often centre on the relationship between development and democracy. Leftwich, however, placed greater emphasis on the issue of the capacity of the state to impose a single set of developmentally-driven rules governing the economy and polity. He used South Korea and Botswana as examples to demonstrate that democracy was less of a determining factor that state capacity in rule enforcement.

Leftwich presented a number of structural characteristics of a developmental state:

They are driven by determined developmental elites;

The state is relatively autonomous in its ability to establish the rules of the game vis-à-vis organised interests within society;

They establish economic bureaucracies at the heart of the polity that were fundamental in shaping development policies;

Civil society is initially weak or subordinated or penetrated by the state;

Human rIghts protection is poor.

The political structure of developmental states, particularly in East and South East Asia, was modified during the 1990s due to both external and internal forces.

Looking to the possibilities for the future emergence of developmental states, Leftwich identified two factors that make the current context substantially different to that of the past.

Internal conflicts are now more common than external threats;

Until recently, the external pressure had been for the rolling back of the state rather than acknowledgment and encouragement of its central role in directing development.

Turning to the policy implications, Leftwich sketched a number of ways in which donors could support the emergence of external and internal conditions conducive to developmental states:

They should make politics central to all their development interventions;

Their focus should be on rules;

They should rethink the state in order to understand what it is rather than what it does.

To conclude, Leftwich suggested a set of broad principles:

Analysis should be embedded in the specific country context;

Greater understanding is needed of formal and informal processes at macro and micro levels;

Better understanding is required of the operation of the 'shadow state';

More knowledge is needed regarding the changes that are occurring in the rules of the game at the local level.

In response, Booth said that he perceived a creative tension currently at play stemming from, on the one hand, the impulse of the international community to use aid to foster development and, on the other, the historical lessons regarding state formation and the conditions necessary for development. The current series aims to bridge this divide.

Booth suggested that current development discourses within both the academic and policy communities provided some of the building blocks for such a bridge. In particular, he highlighted the growing acknowledgment of the centrality of politics and institutions to sustainable development and the existence of disincentives within the current aid architecture to the formation of developmental states. Booth insisted more was needed. The monopoly regarding the need to increase aid should be challenged by the moral argument that we must reshape development efforts in light of the lessons that history has taught us.

Booth concluded by outlining three questions that the series will seek to answer:

Can aid be provided in a way that encourages state formation rather than providing perverse incentives that work against it?

Can donor commitments, such as those contained within the Paris Declaration, be made sensitive to the political nature of what is being proposed?

Can aid coordination be brought up to the level where it is possible to create a world system that is friendly to the formation of developmental states? What would such an environment look like?

A number of themes emerged during the discussion:

ConceRn was expressed that we are careful to define what we mean when we talk about politics. It was suggested that political economy might be a better concept to use because it clearly established the centrality of the issue of distribution of resources. Others felt, however, that it was the formal and informal structure and interactions of power that delineated the political.

Given the artificiality of African states and borders, could we understand current civil conflicts as processes of subaltern state-building in response to perceived external threats from internal 'others'. Could patrimonial politics be interpreted in this light?

Participants questioned whether there was a contradiction between the characterisation of past developmental states as having a weak civil society and the contention that internal demand was a condition for the creation of future developmental states. In many regions civil society and the state had developed simultaneously and iteratively. Also, the importance of internal demand increases in the absence of an external threat. The emergence of a developmental state was likely to take longer under these conditions but it was possible to identify individuals and groups within developing countries who were demanding fairer and more accountable institutions. These needed to be supported and encouraged.

There was a need for recognition that, although the presence of an external threat had been a condition for the emergence of a developmental state, this was not a sufficient condition. Many states had faced external threats and had not been compelled to become developmental. Other factors should be identified.

Parallels were drawn between the experience of anti-developmental states in the developing world and that of Italy in relation to the development of its poorer, southern regions, in particular the existence of shadow states, criminality and the absence of one clear set of rules.

Rather than attempting to make all states developmental, the possibility of focusing on one or two states within a region was suggested. These might then exert a developmental pull on the neighbouring countries.


This introductory meeting of the series examined developmental states - what they are, how they develop and how they can be supported.