Global Development Institute Blog

Why do certain parts of the state in Africa work so effectively despite operating in difficult governance contexts? How do ‘pockets of bureaucratic effectiveness’ emerge and become sustained over time? And what does this tell us about the prospects for state-building and development in Africa?

Edited by Sam Hickey, Pockets of Effectiveness and the Politics of State-building and Development in Africa follows 10 years of research from the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre.

We are pleased to say that the book is Open Access. Read an extract from the opening chapter by Sam Hickey and Kate Pruce below.

The critical role of the state in shaping development prospects in the global South is no longer in question. Repeated economic and health crises over the past half century have underlined the folly of leaving market forces to govern the economy or of undermining the capacity of the state to protect citizens.

The decline of neoliberal hegemony during the early twenty-first century and the related rise of ‘new’ powers, whose developmental trajectories have generally involved a significant role for the state, have also shifted the terms of debate. Development theorists and policy actors alike have once more had to engage with the questions of how, when, and why states become capable of delivering development (Centeno et al. 2017, World Bank 2017). This renewed focus on the capacity of states to deliver development has been closely informed by two important insights—both heralded in the above quotations—that provide the central focus of this volume.

The first concerns the recognition that states are highly differentiated in terms of their ability to deliver on different policy goals. The variation in the capacity and quality of states can be as high within as between states: for example, ‘The difference in corruption scores between Ghana’s best- and worst-rated state agencies approximates the difference between Belgium and Mozambique, spanning the chasm of so-called developed and developing worlds’ (McDonnell 2017: 478). Of particular interest here are those high-performing state agencies that have been referred to as ‘islands of excellence’ (Therlikdsen 2008), ‘bureaucratic niches’ (McDonnell 2020) or, the term we adopt here, ‘pockets of effectiveness’ (Roll 2014). As Mkandawire (2015) notes, such agencies seem to contradict the sweeping generalizations of the state in Africa as irredeemably ‘failed’ or ‘neopatrimonial’.

For some, they offer a glimpse of the Weberian forms of stateness that might emerge in Africa given the right kinds of incentives, investment, and leadership (McDonnell 2020). However, our aim here is to move away from this exceptionalist discourse that too often surrounds the state in Africa. Instead, we reframe these bureaucratic ‘outliers’ as being embedded within the long-term processes of state-formation that all states go through.

As Grindle (2012)shows, the challenge that African rulers face in building state capacity amidst multiple threats to their political survival is remarkably similar to the challenge faced by earlier state-builders in countries such as Britain, France, Japan, and the United States, albeit from the very different starting point of colonialism and thereafter within a particular world historical moment that has contained particular challenges.

The second critical insight for this volume from current debates on state capacity concerns the recognition that both state capacity and state performance are primarily shaped by political factors. Whether states or particular state agencies are able to deliver effectively on their mandates is not just a function of hiring the best staff or being imbued with a bureaucratic ethos.

Rather, it is because of the political support that they receive from those in power (Centeno et al. 2017), support which is in turn shaped by the incentives and ideas generated by the political and political economy context within which political rulers operate. This recognition—that politics and power relations lie behind the emergence and deployment of state capacity—has come to centre-stage within development theory and policy debates over the past decade (Acemoglu and Robinson 2019, Kelsall et al. 2022, Khan 2010, North et al. 2009,) and provides our entry point.

Going further, we aim to identify the specific forms of politics and power relations that shape decisions by rulers to invest in building effective state agencies and offer them the support and space to deliver on their mandates. Our comparative analysis of similar types of pockets of effectiveness (PoEs) within countries that represent different types of ‘political settlement’ (Kelsall et al. 2022, Khan 2017), offers the first systematic examination of the political conditions under which such PoEs emerge and become sustained within developing-country contexts.

The challenge, however, is not only to identify how such high-performing agencies emerge in relation to the often competing logics of regime survival, political competition, and state formation that characterize political development at the national level, but to also locate this in the global context that the negotiation of statehood in Africa been embedded within for well over a century now (Hagmann and Peclard 2010). A creation of colonialism (Mamdani 1996), the post-colonial state in Africa has continued to be profoundly shaped by external forces and agendas.

Over the past three decades that we focus on here, the lending and policy agendas of international development organizations, as located within the broader project of ‘disciplinary neoliberalism’ that defined much of this period (Gill 1995), have been particularly influential.

Our case-study organizations—which include finance ministries, central banks, and revenue authorities—offer particularly clear evidence of the influence of disciplinary neoliberalism on the capacity of the state to deliver development in Africa (Harrison 2010, Mkandawire 2014). These cases also offer us the chance to explore the extent to which the apparent ruptures caused by the global financial crisis, the commodity boom, and the rising powers phenomenon during the early twenty-first century—which seemed to generate a new political economy of development and governance in Africa¹—has indeed opened up space for alternative projects of state-building and development to emerge (Grabel 2017, Jepson 2020, Jessop 2015).

Reframed as such, we conducted in-depth investigations of PoEs in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia, with chapters on each forming the core of this book’s contribution. We found that Africa’s high-performing state agencies offer a fascinating window onto how the politics of state-building, democratization, and regime survival are currently unfolding in Africa, as shaped by broader processes of capitalist development and international intervention.

Our overall argument is that the apparent anomaly that PoEs in Africa present—as high performing state agencies in otherwise difficult governance contexts—needs to be understood in relation to the distribution of political power, or what we term the ‘political settlement’, and how this shapes the strategies of governing coalitions. PoEs tend to emerge and flourish when rulers stitch together technocratic coalitions that give politically savvy organizational leaders the space to build high performing state agencies.

As early state-builders found (Grindle 2012), securing such spaces becomes much harder when the level of factionalism amongst elites increases, both within governing coalitions and between different groups competing for power, particularly where this competition is weakly institutionalized. And for investments in PoEs to extend into a more general project of state-building requires even more demanding conditions, most notably a perception amongst rulers that certain social groups pose such a threat to the political settlement that investing in a wider state-building effort constitutes a logical response.

International actors have offered essential support for the specific type of PoEs we investigate here but this has been both insufficient and problematic; their highly partial investments have profoundly shaped which parts of the state work in Africa, and as elsewhere (Jessop 2015), what kinds of economic and social project it is capable of delivering.

This leads us to argue that state-capacity building in Africa in the future, and in relation to economic development in particular, must involve a more balanced approach that supports those state agencies required to pursue the forms of structural transformation required to generate lasting processes of poverty reduction.


Top image of Street scene in Freetown, Sierra Leone by Random Institute on Unsplash

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.