Governance, the State and the Politics of Development by Adrian Leftwich — A Summary

Leftwich, Adrian. 1994. “Governance, the State and the Politics of Development.” Development and Change 25 (2). Blackwell Publishing Ltd: 363–86.


Contemporary aid and development policy are characterised by: (i) their promotion of market friendly and competitive economies; (ii) their support for democratization and improvement of human rights; and (iii) their insistence on ‘good governance’.

With regards to the first, the record has been patchy at best and destabilizing at worst. As for democracy, the experience has been that democratization without mature political institutions has not led to development. In fact, the success stories come from countries that are anything but competitive democracies. And ‘good governance’? Current strategies on good governance are naïve and simplistic and draw on the ‘technicist illusion’ that there is always a managerial fix to the problems facing human societies.

Development is generated, sustained and protected by politics and the state has a crucial role in this process. Politics in this sense refers to the “activities of conflict, cooperation and negotiation involved in the use, production and distribution of resources, whether material or ideal, and whether at local, national and international levels”. All development is inescapably political.

Origins of the Concern with ‘Governance’

Good governance can be understood in administrative and managerial terms (as the World Bank does) or in terms of competitive democratic politics (as most Western democracies do). The article shall concentrate on the first.

The concern for ‘good governance’ rose in the late 1980s due to the experience of structural adjustment lending, the dominance of official neo-liberalism in the west, the collapse of official communist regimes and the impact of the pro-democracy movements in the developing world and elsewhere.

The Experience of Structural Adjustment in the 1980s

Structural adjustment or the encouragement of open and free competitive markets was the condition associated with western loans to developing countries during the 1980s. This was to take place through stabilization — devaluation and austerity — and adjustment — deregulation and privatisation.

Structural adjustment threatened existing production processes and relations. The poor and the elite alike stood to suffer because of this change. This is why adjustment was so political. Because of the incompetent yet powerful state apparatuses which sought their own protection, most of the loans were misused and their condition of structural adjustment was not met. This led to calls for good governance.

The Political Influence of Neo-Classical Counter-Revolution

The WB and the IMF, given their structure of voting power, are dominated by the US, Japan, Germany, the UK and France. The ascendency of neo-liberalism in these countries in the 1970’s was reflected in the policies of the WB and the IMF.

Neo-liberalism, in addition to its thrust towards economic and political freedom, asserts the primacy of rights and, in its right-wing libertarian hue, expresses its hostility towards state interference. Functionally, this means an assertion of democratic politics and a slim, effective and accountable public bureaucracy. The failure of governance is due to a bloated and inefficient state apparatus and hence the need for good governance.

The Collapse of Communism

The collapse of the USSR left the West free to attach any conditions with its loans without fear of losing its clients to communism. But more crucially, it (the fall of the USSR) discredited the communist economic argument while confirming neo-liberal theory.

The Impact of the Pro-Democracy Movements

Pro-democracy movements in Latin America, the Philippines and latterly Eastern Europe in the 1980’s stimulated similar movements elsewhere in Africa and Asia — a movement towards democratic politics with a desire for good governance.

Good Governance: Emergence and Meanings


The notion of good governance first appeared officially in the 1989 World Bank Report Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth [pdf]. It was followed by subsequent reports by the World Bank itself as well as a number of other agencies which stressed governance, development, democracy, human rights in differing degrees.

Meaning of Good Governance

From a systemic perspective, good governance denotes the whole sphere of economic and political relationships and the rules by which the productive and distributive life of societies are governed. From a political perspective, it means a state with its legitimacy and authority derived from a democratic mandate. From an administrative perspective, it means an efficient, independent, accountable, and open public service. This last perspective, the narrowest among the three, is the World Bank’s position.

ACCOUNTABILITY Holding officials responsible for their actions.

LEGAL FRAMEWORK FOR DEVELOPMENT A structure of rules and regulations for clarity, predictability and stability applies extensively and fairly.

INFORMATION Free availability of reliable data.

TRANSPARENCY Open, accountable, and uncorrupt government.

This perspective is impeccably Weberian, in spirit if not in letter. But it is extremely naïve, unlike Weber’s, in that it divorces good governance from state character and state capacity which are determined by politics. It fails to engage with the history, practice, and theory of the state as an agent in the developmental process.

The Idea of the Developmental State

Meaning and Background

The idea of the developmental state is not new. And it has always been profoundly political in origin and statist in focus.

It may be traced back to Friedrich List’s critique (The National System of Political Economy, 1841) of Francois Quesnay and Adam Smith. He argues for the involvement of the state in economic development of the nation instead of depending on the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. Even Karl Marx points out the importance of the nature of the ‘autonomous’ capitalist state.

The idea of state as an agent of development was embraced in the 20th-century by colonial powers even if little was actually done on the ground. A link was drawn between democracy and development. Meanwhile, a motivated and ultra-nationalistic ‘developmental dictatorship’ was established in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

The relationship between the political characteristics of states and their success in development projects began to emerge. Fred Riggs (Thailand: The Modernization of a Bureaucratic Polity, 1966) employed the notion of ‘bureaucratic polity’ to explain Thai growth arising from its nationalist underpinnings. Similar arguments can be made for the rise of Indonesia’s ‘New Order’ in the 1960s. Apart from the military aspect of Indonesia, this model of bureaucratic polity, which is unlike any of the current models we have, can explain successful developmental democracies like Botswana and Singapore.

Samuel Huntington (Political Order in Changing Societies, 1968) stressed the importance of concentrating political power in a developmental state if the regressive forces of traditions are to be overcome in order to undertake development. Gunnar Myrdal similarly emphasises the significance of a ‘strong’ state, in the context of India, to effect visible development.

Ellen Trimberger (Revolution from Above, 1978) explains the emergence of progressive bureaucratic states by drawing attention to the autonomy of the bureaucratic state apparatus.

The term ‘developmental state’ was first used by Chalmers Johnson (Miti and the Japanese Miracle, 1982). He identified the pre-eminent role of the state in setting social and economic goals, the autonomy of its elite bureaucracy and the nationalist objectives, in a hostile world, geared towards competence. This ‘development orientation’ was differentiated from the command economy of the communist countries and the regulatory nature of liberal-democracies.

The takeaway from all these contributions is that development cannot be depoliticised into a technical bureaucratic problem and that it is the state alone which can provide the developmental will and enable good governance.

Developmental StatesGrowth Rates

From the table, there emerges a group of eight countries with average rates of growth in excess of 4 per cent per annum: Malaysia, Botswana, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, China and Thailand. With regard to history, population, culture, religion regime type and economic policy, these countries could not be more different. But they have all achieved remarkable developmental records. The common features that unite these otherwise disparate state states may point to a preliminary model of the developmental state.

Whether democratic or not, developmental states have all been de facto or de jure one-party states for much of the past thirty years. The effect has been to concentrate political power at the top which helps enhance political stability and ensures continuity in policy.

These states have also been dominated by motivated and relatively uncorrupt developmental elites. There is deep solidarity between top bureaucrats and political leaders who despite differences are united by a determined national developmental objective.

Another feature is the relative autonomy of the developmental elites and the state institutions they command. Autonomy, in this case, refers to independence from the demands of special interests which are generally overridden in the national interest.

Elite determination and autonomy has created a very powerful, competent and insulated economic bureaucracy with authority in directing and managing economic and social development.

All these come at a price: civil society has been sidelined. Institutions of civil society have been smashed, penetrated, dominated or come to be financed by the state.

The power, authority and autonomy of these states were established at an early point in their developmental history. This made sure that national or foreign capital did not become influential in policy-making. When combined with the domination of civil society, this has made the state extremely powerful vis-a-vis private interests.

Finally, whether democratic or not, these states have not been particularly pleasant by either liberal or socialist standards. Dissent has been frowned upon and, often, brutally put down.

The distinguishing characteristic of developmental states, then, has been that their “institutional and political objectives have been developmentally-driven, while their developmental purposes have been politically-driven”. Development, in short, has been shaped by fundamentally political factors.



Good governance is not simply a function of institution building or heavy doses of training. Neither sophisticated institutional innovations nor the best-trained or best-motivated public service will be able to withstand the effects of corruption or resist the pulls of special or favoured interests if the politics and authority of the state do not sustain and protect them.

The remarkable achievements of the societies discussed have been masterminded by developmental states whose politics have concentrated sufficient power, probity, autonomy and competence at the centre to shape, pursue and encourage the achievement of explicit and nationally-determined developmental objectives.

Current official theories of good governance eulogize the minimal state, a Weberian-type bureaucracy, rigorous respect for human rights, a rich and diverse civil society, political pluralism and a sharp separation of economic and political life. This is extremely naïve. The model of the developmental state entails a strong and determined state which protects a powerful and competent bureaucracy that largely shapes and directs development policy. For all these reasons, it is time to bring politics back in.


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