Global Development Institute Blog

GDI Professors Sam Hickey and Kunal Sen recently published Pathways to Development: From Politics to Power (OUP) – an open access book that provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the politics of development. The book represents a summary of a decade’s worth of research undertaken by the Effective States and Inclusive Development research centre (ESID) – a project exploring how politics shapes development across settings and sectors – as well as a related project on integrating ‘pockets of effectiveness’ in developing countries.

Pathways to Development asks why some countries experience rapid economic growth while struggling to deliver services, why some countries manage to govern natural resources effectively while failing to protect the rights of vulnerable citizens, and why some countries manage to avoid the so-called ‘natural resource curse’ while others do not.

The following extract situates Pathways to Development within broader trends surrounding the incorporation of politics into development debates, tracking the effects of this political turn on scholarship, policy, and practice. Read it for an overview of the book’s main aims, and don’t forget to read the whole thing open access here.


The puzzle of why some countries are wealthier and more developed than others continues to confound students and practitioners of development alike. Whereas earlier grand explanations focused on issues of ‘geography’ or ‘institutions’, the second decade of the twenty-first century finally saw politics arrive centre stage within international development. Influential scholars who had previously identified ‘institutions’ as determining why some countries are wealthier than others now placed politics at the centre of their theories (NWW 2009; Acemoglu and Robinson 2012, 2019). The world of development policy has also made significant, if incomplete, steps towards ‘thinking and working politically’ (Carothers and de Gramont 2013), with a growing number of agencies undertaking political economy analyses to inform their engagements and recent development reports drawing heavily on the language and sensibilities of the new turn to taking politics seriously (World Bank 2017).

This should not be surprising; politics is fundamentally about contestation over resources and ideas: about who gets what, how, and why (Leftwich 1994). However, politics has rarely been central to mainstream development theory and practice in the post-war era, for a series of reasons that include ideological and institutional constraints (Leftwich 2005; Hickey 2008). For example, calls to ‘bring politics back into development’ were made frequently during the 1980s and 1990s (Goldsworthy 1988; Leftwich 1994), often in relation to the rapid progress being made by developmental states in East Asia (Johnson 1982; Evans 1995; Leftwich 1995).

However, such calls arrived while neoliberal sensibilities were taking hold, and accounts that put politics and the state at the centre of development theory and practice, as opposed to the role of markets, were actively downplayed by powerful development agencies in favour of protecting the new hegemony (Wade 1996). Although this move reduced the influence of the developmental states literature, and of other work on the political origins of (under)development being undertaken at the time (e.g. Bates 1981), the developmental state literature helped inspire a wider range of scholarship on the politics of development, including comparative historical work that focused on how elite perceptions of ‘systemic vulnerability’ and underlying state–society alignments shaped whether institutions would be developmental or not (e.g. Doner et al. 2005; Slater 2010; see Haggard 2018 for a summary).

When a stronger sense of politics was incorporated into international development during the 1990s and early 2000s, however, the inspiration was not from these strands of political analysis but rather from new institutional economics. Moving on from the idea that development primarily involved processes of capital accumulation, new institutionalism directed attention to the long-term evolution of the ‘rules of the game’ within which actors operate, how they shape development trajectories, and particularly the behavioural incentives for elite groups that are embedded in different kinds of rules (North 1990). Rodrik (2004) shows how neo-institutionalist economics influenced mainstream thinking on ‘good governance’ during the 1990s, as with the marked convergence around the assumption that certain institutions (e.g. secure property rights) are central to achieving economic development. The good-governance agenda that emerged during this period emphasized not only the streamlining of the central state (e.g. decentralization, public-sector reform) and the promotion of inclusive and accountable liberal institutions (including elections, anti-corruption commissions, and so on), but also placed a major emphasis on the role of civil society, social capital, and citizens to promote such institutions.

By the mid-2000s, the tide had shifted towards politics playing a more central role in the theory and practice of international development (Leftwich 2005), driven in part by the growing level of problems facing the goodgovernance agenda. Long opposed from different perspectives (Khan 1995; Potter 2000; Grindle 2004), even development agencies were now aware that promoting certain types of institutions in developing-country contexts was a highly problematic venture. Successive internal evaluations revealed how large scale and widespread the failures with this agenda had been, particularly in terms of public-sector reforms. One World Bank report found that half of 145 countries with donor-sponsored reforms saw declines in government effectiveness between 1998 and 2008, a finding reinforced soon with similar portfolio reviews of governance work undertaken by other development agencies (Andrews 2013).

A central problem was the clash between good-governance ideals and the pressing incentives facing governing elites in developing countries, many of whom spent more time worrying about how to maintain order and keep themselves in power than longer-term goals of state-building and democratization. This realization that elite-level politics is central to how institutions actually function in practice would be the critical insight of the new turn to politics by prominent development scholars, from both long-term critics of new institutionalism (e.g. Khan 2005, 2017) and some of its strongest proponents (NWW 2009; Acemoglu and Robinson 2012).

The political turn in development policy and practice was also informed by the increasing use of experimental methods in political science and in social sciences more broadly (McDermott 2002; Druckman et al. 2011). Experimental methods were increasingly used during the 2000s in evaluations of interventions designed to improve participation in the political and policy process, reduce corruption and leakages, and improve state capacity, and figured prominently in governance research undertaken by major development agencies such as the World Bank (see Khemani et al. 2016). However, experimental methods have been increasingly criticized for their lack of external validity—that is, whether the findings of a particular study could be generalized to other contexts—as well as focusing only on micro-interventions that could be observed only in the short term. Thus, experimental methods are not particularly suitable for addressing broader questions around the deeper structural factors that underlie economic and political underdevelopment. As Deaton and Cartwright (2018: 1) convincingly argue: ‘RCTs can play a role in scientific knowledge and useful predictions but they can only do so as part of cumulative program, combining with other methods, including conceptual and theoretical development, to discover not “what works” but “why things work”.’

The political turn has directly informed some important but still incipient shifts within development policy and practice, in what has been appropriately referred to as an ‘almost revolution’ (Carothers and de Gramont 2013). An emblematic feature of this almost revolution is reflected in the sense that, during the early to mid-2000s, the use of political economy analysis became almost routine in some development agencies, even if more progress is required before it can be said to have become institutionalized (Fritz et al. 2014; Yanguas and Hulme 2015). Development agencies have also moved away from the certainties of the good-governance agenda, and have started to embrace, somewhat tentatively, the principles of an emerging new governance agenda that is based less on grand reforms than on working with locally based teams of reformers to identify solutions to specific problems in a more adaptive and contextually specific way (Andrews et al. 2012).

The 2018 World Development Report on Governance and the Law catches some of these shifts, employing the language of the new theoretical turn to politics, with its emphasis on ‘elite bargaining’ and ‘political settlements’, and the new sense in which the normative project of promoting certain forms of ‘best-practice’ institutions has now been shelved in favour of a more realist, ‘best-fit’ approach (Andrews 2013). This has apparently pushed the mainstream further away from the certainties of the ‘good-governance’ agenda, displaced by a somewhat sombre account of the prospects for institutional reform in contexts where elite political behaviour is depicted in more realist terms than was apparent in the earlier emphasis on national ‘ownership’ (Booth 2011).

The (overdue) rise of politics within international development, then, has made impressive progress during the first two decades of the twenty first century. However, this ‘almost revolution’ has left several important questions unanswered:

  • Which forms of politics matter most in shaping development progress, both between and within countries? Evidence gaps and a lack of theorytesting mean that we do not have clear answers to this question, in part because the new theories of how politics shapes development have not been trialled and tested in developing-country contexts in a systematic way.
  • Missing middle: as Grindle (2017) notes, there is large gap between the macro and micro advances that have been made around the new politics and governance agenda since the 2010s, with little sense of what relationship there might be between the forms of politics identified in new theories of long-run development and either new experimental data or the techniques and ambitions of the new ‘doing development differently’ agenda. For example:

– How do deep-run processes of politics and institutional development play out within the shorter-time periods within which decisionmakers operate?

– Do underlying forms of politics and power relations play out in the same way across different sectors or domains of policy (e.g. economic growth or social provisioning), or is there a specific politics to these domains that also needs to be accounted for?

Seeking answers to these questions, through a theoretical and methodological approach that can hopefully be used more broadly, is the core objective of this book.



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