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Does political development involve inherent tradeoffs?

For years, social scientists have wondered about what causes political development and what can be done to stimulate it in the developing world. By political development, they mean the creation of democratic governments and public bureaucracies that can effectively respond to citizens’ demands. Early in the Cold War era, most scholars were optimistic and assumed that political development would occur quickly and easily in the developing world. They expected that countries would democratize and that their governments would generate lots of state capacity to provide new public services. But, as time wore on, many observers came to realize that the process was often fitful.

Some scholars became convinced that countries faced inherent developmental tradeoffs. In the 1970s, Samuel Huntington and Joan Nelson — in a book titled No Easy Choice — warned that developing countries could not simultaneously sustain democracy and economic growth policies. They felt that democracy led to pressures for economic redistribution, which would impede growth, but also recognized that excluding people from democratic participation created turmoil. More recently, Francis Fukuyama (writing in the Journal of Democracy) concluded that countries couldn’t have a vigorous democracy unless their governments possessed significant state capacity. Herein lay a tradeoff: for a central government to uphold the rule of law — something necessary for a robust democracy — it has to concentrate power. But citizens in fledgling democracies often (justifiably) worry about governments holding too much power. Fukuyama suggested that political development was double-edged: implanting a strong democracy and building state capacity were in tension.

Around the time Fukuyama wrote his cautionary article, I set out to investigate how countries in the developing world had acquired state capacity in the past. I embarked on this research as American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq was making one thing clear: it’s really hard to build functional and effective states. I thought case studies might clarify how some countries had historically generated state capacity through more organic means, which might be useful knowledge for policymakers wanting to build up weak or failed states today.

Ryan Saylor - Guachos in Patagonia
Sheep Mustering In Argentinian Patagonia. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I studied six countries in Latin America and Africa — Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ghana, Mauritius, and Nigeria — and discovered a striking pattern. I found that when each of them experienced their first major commodity boom (in commodities as diverse as cattle, copper, sugar, and wheat), there were groups involved in the production and marketing of these goods that asked their governments for similar things. They wanted the state to provide new transportation infrastructure and help them obtain finance, so they could enlarge their operations. The situation seemed like a “win-win”: exporters could expand their businesses, and governments would stimulate economic growth.

But, curiously, governments often spurned these requests. I found that only when exporters were part of the governing coalition — meaning they were closely allied with politicians — did the government assist them. This was the case in Argentina, Chile, and Mauritius. When exporters were politically marginalized, governments refused to help them. In fact, governments worked against them, taxing their goods heavily and redistributing that wealth into boondoggles. Governments in Colombia, Ghana, and Nigeria essentially chose to sacrifice economic growth in order to redirect export wealth to their political cronies. These choices had lasting consequences. Over the longer term, Argentina, Chile, and Mauritius built fairly capable states, while the other countries did not.

My professional self was elated by these findings, since researchers hadn’t emphasized this coalitional perspective to analyze state building. And yet I was troubled by what seemed to be a tradeoff present in my “success” stories. The countries that expanded their state capacity often did so repugnantly. The Chilean government invaded and “pacified” the lands of the Mapuche Indians. It then sold the land to established landed elites, who wanted to prevent others from ending their stranglehold on the country’s farmland. In Argentina, ranchers in Buenos Aires province got the government to go to war with the country’s other littoral provinces, where upstart ranchers were challenging the economic hegemony of Buenos Aires pastoralists. The government also launched a ghastly military campaign to subjugate Indian tribes that were preventing ranchers from moving their herds southward into Patagonia. And Mauritius created a legal labyrinth to harass people who had legally left the harsh conditions of sugar estates in search of a better life. The government intimidated many of them back onto plantations, where some historians liken the working conditions to slavery. State building came at the expense of the weak.

I wrestle with these findings because governments with considerable state capacity can do lots of good things, especially for the powerless. They can uphold the rule of law, ensure democratic accountability, and provide public goods, such as education systems and clean water. And weak or failing states are environments where insurgent and terrorist groups can flourish. So there are manifest reasons why we should want countries to expand their state capacity. Nevertheless, the lessons from my book do not translate easily into sensible policy, since state building was doubled-edged. I hope that state building doesn’t require a tradeoff between enhancing government capabilities and treating vulnerable groups fairly. But one thing is clear: state building is politically charged. Building effective states isn’t simply a technical endeavor, but a deeply political process — one with enduring consequences.

Featured image: USAID works with Nigerians to improve agriculture, health, education, and governance. By USAID Africa Bureau. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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