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States and Societies: why is state formation so difficult?

Time (GMT +00) 17:00 18:30


Patrick Chabal, Professor of Lusophone African Studies, Kings College London


Simon Maxwell, ODI

Patrick Chabal's presentation was in two parts:

  1. a look at the post-colonial state

  2. the issue of good governance

He prefaced his remarks on the post-colonial state with the comment that there is a growing understanding among donors that politics and the state are important. However, policy must be framed by the realisation that 'the state in Africa is seldom what it appears to be'.

He said the post-colonial state should be conceptualised as overlapping layers of formal and informal spheres of power. Patrimonial rules mean a situation in which rulers are accountable to followers and legitimacy derives from the ability to deliver resources. This situation was found is a number of countries after independence. Chabal cited the example of Ivory Coast.

He went on to describe the mismatch between formal and informal systems and the mistake of donors in creating aid dependence. The success of state was measured by citizens by how well it worked according to informal rules - but external donors measured it according how its formal institutions appeared. He said that ultimately informal/formal demands are not compatible - particularly under economic stress/crisis. There was a frantic search for resources and aid filled the gap. Aid was biggest source of revenue over time and increased dependence on donors.

Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) in the 80s signalled the end to the 'functioning neopatrimonial state'. Lack of aid funds meant rulers could no longer balance the demands of the informal and formal sectors. Officially, rulers operated to norms of formal sector but the informal sector came to dominate increasingly.

He said that there is an enormous difference between countries in Africa ranging from those more efficient/able to operate in formal sector (Botswana) and those that don't operate at all (Zaire). However, there is a clear trend of decline in state efficiency.

Moving to the issue of governance, Chabal said the issue of rebuilding states in Africa was a practical one. He contested the view held by some donors that the market can drive state building, stating that there is no C20th example of development or growth without strong state direction.

On the role of the state, Chabal pointed out the long-running debate between the roles of 'enabler' and 'manager' of development. He identified the following features of a developmental state, which he said are missing all over Africa:

  • guarantees order and peace other than by repressive measures and uphold RoL, which requires functioning legal framework;

  • maintains basic admin organisation at a minimum, which is regulates and enables economic activity over time;

  • ensures sufficiently operational infrastructure e.g. communication, transport, electricity;

  • provides basic health and education and if possible expansion of higher technical training, which is crucial;

  • ensures finance and banking infrastructure.
    He said these features constitute an efficient government and have little to do with whether the state is democratic or authoritarian.

He also outlined lessons from the Asian Tiger economies:

  • strong or efficient state is fundamental to economic growth;

  • state directed investment critical

  • access to world market important in several aspects e.g. comparative advantage

  • economic growth depends on investment in human capital

  • Culture is important but not always obvious in which way - e.g. Confucianism identified both as pro- and anti-dev. by commentators.

The latest thinking is that the failure of state is the primary reason for the absence of development. There are 2 factors at play:

  • State decline doesn't have gradual negative effects. Below a certain 'threshold' the efficiency of state falls off rapidly, and eventually collapses, and doesn't have role other than clientelistic. One can identify this point.

  • Such decline is more than mere administrative corrosion. It is the increased dominance of informal over formal and there is a rapid destruction of the bureaucracy that was established at independence.

There exists the assumption that re-institutionalisation is merely a technical process. However, training is not sufficient where a state has gone below a certain threshold. Africans' view of the state is crucial. Once they view it as no more than a predatory body, they lose hope that it can be modernised and made to work for them.

The focus now should be on establishing how to measure the 'threshold of efficiency', concentrating on leaders who are concerned with avoiding state decline, distinguishing between countries that inherited a functioning state from the colonial period and those that didn't and on political will. Chabal gave a warning that even well organised states have collapsed.

He concluded by saying that

  • Aid can help sustain neopatrimonial networks, preventing state decline below the threshold, propping up the state, but not promote development, until political pressure from below can move it forward

  • Devolution of power, decentralisation, can only work to improve conditions when state is committed to improving conditions (efficiency, development)

  • Efficiency and development will result in increased state legitimacy.

Simon Maxwell recommended that the many lists of features that define a 'developmental state' should be brought together. He asked Chabal to expand his comments on statebuilding and asked whether the solution was to find progressive politicians. He also mentioned Hilary Benn's speech (Feb 06) on governance as part of White Paper consultation. Benn outlined what good governance is and he said it boiled down to 4 things: authority; responsibility; accountability; legitimacy.

Points raised in the discussion included:

  • Why clientelism works well in one place and not in others. Argument that there is good clientelism and bad clientelism is inadequate.

  • Patrimonialism can be great and all politics are patrimonial in some way or another. Shouldn't talk about patrimonial or neopatrimonial and instead focus on developmental states: what makes them?

  • Which states in SSA are currently above the threshold?

  • Why there is no incentive in Africa to invest in one's own country;

  • Domestic pressure is needed to move away from neopatrimonialism. Suggestions for outside actors to support this activity;

  • The need to recognise that state building is a long term process;

  • The problem with looking to Asia is that it impossible to conceive of that type of nationalism playing the same role in Africa that it did there;

  • There isn't an indigenous capitalist class that can be taxed and make demands on state in Africa;

  • The role of a capitalist class. If what is necessary to reform the state is a capitalist class that is effective and can generate productivity improvements, should we shift attention from state to supporting these sorts of private sector initiatives?

  • How do you explain virtuous enclaves within African state systems, given the suggestion of impossibility of progress given the political economy that you describe?

  • Are the thresholds Chabal talked about universal? In Latin America there are low expectations and a certain of amount plundering but state still functions. Would it not be better to speak of 'direction of travel' not threshold. If you can persuade people that things are getting better than maybe point that people get less cynical;

  • Other factors, e.g. population growth, global economic decline 1970s, resource prices.


The fourth meeting in the '(Re-)Building Developmental States: From Theory to Practice' series discussed state formation.