The developmental state

—Syed Mohammad Ali

Much is written about the evolving nature of state systems and the subsequent range of responsibilities assumed by them for the purported benefit of their citizenry. However, a major bulk of such thought is based on political frameworks of analysis. Thinking about a state from a primarily developmental perspective receives relatively less attention. Yet the growing prominence of multinational entities in the contemporary world order has at least managed to nudge the concept of developmental responsibilities of a state to the centre of international policy debates. Besides thinking of the state primarily in geo-strategic terms, or with reference to sovereignty, ideology or political legitimacy issues, this recognition has led to considering more closely measures adopted by states for achieving human development goals.

There are some underlying reasons why the concept of development is gradually being acknowledged as one of the pivotal responsibilities of a state. The glaring prevalence of socio-economic disparities that continue to tarnish the claims of incremental global progress provides ample moral justification for adjusting the conventional criteria for assessing states. Moreover, the growing realisation that environmental problems like climate change are hardly containable within national boundaries has also compelled international consensus that all states must be urged to pursue sustainable models of development. The security threat posed by fragile states to their own citizens, as well as to those of more affluent states, has further justified the need for focusing on the developmental role of states.

However, mere acknowledgements in principle are hardly sufficient for altering the actual behaviour of states. Unfortunately, many developing countries are still focusing on economic growth that increases gaps between the rich and the poor. Even the most advanced countries in the world have not stopped causing massive pollution due to their extractive production and unsustainable consumptive patterns. The prevalence of internal repression and external aggression by particular states is also not hard to find.

Nonetheless, there are now numerous instances of varied development actors involved in promoting ‘good governance’ across the world. Yet there is some disagreement regarding what the exact responsibilities of a developmental state should be, and even how international development agencies can help out in this regard. UN agencies, for example, seem keen to bind all states into legal agreements that ensure provision of basic human rights for women and children, while other prominent stakeholders like the international financial institutions consider economic restructuring more important for promoting development goals. Although the World Bank visibly seems to agree with organisations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that governments must devise equitable economic policies, there is often a difference of opinions between different development agencies when it comes to designing specific measures to address seemingly complementary goals. In addition to many international non-government organisations, UN agencies like the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) became a vocal critic of the structural adjustment policies put in place by the World Bank to combat poverty.

However, international agencies working in developing countries do have an evident influence on stimulating or else hindering development activities. While a shifting focus on the development role of the state is a positive sign, it has to be accompanied by efforts to make the aid system itself more effective in supporting this role. Aid provided by powerful countries to poorer ones can be designed to provide an incentive structure to recipient states for implementing pro-poor policies, instead of merely filling state coffers in the name of the poor. To lessen arbitrary provision of aid, which is more often impelled by vested interests, instead of genuine needs, donors must themselves have clearer ideas about which state institutions and processes are necessary for different types of development to take place.

Lessons learnt from real-life experiences indicate the need for more intensive engagement between donors and recipient countries rather than relying on ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions that have been so common in the past. Over seventy developing countries have recently formulated Poverty Reduction Strategies, but these standardised strategies again lack clear-cut links between broader strategies and the available local resources and capacity to implement strategic assertions for poverty reduction. If the development community is to make progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015, both donor and recipient states must deepen their ownership of development processes.

Donor and recipient countries have to work together to manage resources on the basis of desired results and use information to improve decision-making. This requires strengthening the capacity to undertake such management. Donors must also work aggressively to reduce their own transaction costs of delivering and managing aid, while simultaneously support achievement of mutual accountability commitments, based on clear-cut action agendas. At their end, recipient governments must meet a higher expectation level for reforms by making their state institutions more accountable.

Contending with such theoretical precepts in reality is of course complicated. A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development illustrates some of the challenges in this regard. In the case of Benin for example, the government is so weak and corrupt that it is not even possible for donor aid to be adequately reflected within the development budget. Promoting the developmental role of states is even difficult when states are literally being rebuilt. Internal resistance to foreign occupation and vested local interests has created seemingly insurmountable hurdles preventing the emergence of more developmentally conscious state systems in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Even in less problematic developing countries, the lack of reliable specific indicators to measure government performance makes it very difficult to measure success with regards to the incremental developmental character of ruling governments.

A new interpretation of the role of the state that implies reconfiguring current development and aid policies is certainly not easy. But the potential benefits if this were really to happen would be worthwhile. To expedite this goal, re-thinking of the developmental role of states should not only be confined amongst development agencies or policy makers, but also include the public at large.

First published in the Daily Times

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