16 November 2012

Africa: Developmental State - the Politics and Economics of Nation Building


THE social and economic successes of Asia have drawn global attention to the developmental state as a possible model for developing countries. In Namibia, many, including myself, see this as a possible panacea to the country's numerous social and economic challenges.

However, a government committing itself to constructing a developmental state is one thing; actually implementing the necessary institutional and policy reforms to make it a reality is another.

The 'Developmental State'

'The African Nation', a hefty tome of 400 pages, brings together a lifetime's work of emeritus professor of sociology at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, Kwesi Kwaa Prah. In this book Prah does reflect at length on colonial and post-colonial Africa and reminds us of the inspirationally bracing and emotionally rapturous halcyon years of the prospect and later arrival of the political independence of African states.

Prah says with the sobering benefit of hindsight, we now know only too well that we were blinded by our early euphoria. Today, everyone talks about 'developmentalism' as former Marxists have long abandoned their ideology and caved-in so resoundingly to imperial decrepitude. Indeed, international thinking on the role of the state in development has undergone several permutations over the years.

State-led development was encouraged and supported in the 1950s and 1960s; then State-led development was criticised as inefficient in the 1970s and early 1980s; this was followed by the implementation of structural adjustment and market-oriented reforms as part of the Washington consensus; now once again, the role of the state in development is re-evaluated based on the successful experiences of state-led development in several Asian countries emerging since the mid-1990s.

In the literature, the 'developmental state' has two components: one ideological and another - structural. It is this ideology-structure nexus that distinguishes developmental states from other state formations.

In terms of ideology, such a state is essentially one whose ideological underpinning is 'developmentalist' in that it conceives its 'mission' as that of ensuring economic development, usually interpreted to mean high rates of accumulation and industrialization.

Such a state "establishes as its principle of legitimacy its ability to promote sustained development, understanding by development the steady high rates of economic growth and structural change in the productive system, both domestically and in its relationship to the international economy." (Castells, 1992: 55). At this ideational level, the élite must be able to establish an 'ideological hegemony', so that its developmental project becomes, in a Gramcian sense, a 'hegemonic' project to which key actors in the nation adhere voluntarily.

The state-structure side of the definition of the developmental state emphasizes capacity to implement economic policies sagaciously and effectively. Such a capacity is determined by various others institutional, technical, administrative and political factors. Underpinning all these is the autonomy of the state from social forces so that it can use these capacities to devise long-term economic policies unencumbered by the claims of myopic private interests.

The demise of the theoretical armour for state intervention, the palpable failure of 'development planning' in many countries, stagnation and the crisis of accumulation in the socialist countries and the pessimism or cynicism of the development establishment about its counterparts in the recipient countries, all these pointed to 'government failure' as more insidious than the market failure that state policies had purportedly been designed to correct, as arguments against state intervention are based on an idealized and dogmatic view of markets.

Lack of Ideology?

One recurring theme in political discourse in Africa often advanced by Africans themselves relates to the lack of an ideology of development anchored in some form of nationalist project. Some talk of the 'ideological vacuum' that they attribute to the commitment of the petty bourgeois to their class interests and their fear of 'revolutionary pressures', while others have argued elsewhere that for most of the first generation of African leaders 'development' was certainly a central preoccupation.

Indeed, people such as Thandika Mkandawire characterize the post-colonial state as 'developmentalist' almost by definition. According to Mkandawire, African leaders have always been aware of the need for some 'nationalist-cum-developmentalist' ideology for both nation building and development. The centrality of 'development' was such that it acquired the status of an ideology i.e 'developmentalism'.

To prove his point, Mkandawire asserts that by political commitment and social origins most of the leaders were deeply committed to the "eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease," which formed an 'unholy trinity' against which nationalist swords were drawn in the post-colonial era. The quest for an ideology to guide the developmental process inspired African leaders to propound their 'ideologies' to 'rally the masses' for national unity and development. If such ideologies are still absent it is definitely not for lack of trying.

Mkandawire further elaborates by saying that one remarkable feature of the discourse on the state and development in Africa is the disjuncture between an analytical tradition that insists on the impossibility of developmental states in Africa and a prescriptive literature that presupposes their existence. States whose capacity to pursue any national project is denied at one level (theoretical or diagnostic) are exhorted, at the prescriptive level, to assume roles that are, ex definitione or by definition, beyond their capacity or political will.

Such states are urged to 'delink'; to reduce themselves; to stabilize the economy; to privatize the economy; to engage in 'good governance'; to democratize themselves and society and to create an 'enabling environment' for the private sector, etc. In other words, to do what they cannot do. What we then have is, to paraphrase Gramci, are the pessimism of the diagnosis and the optimism of the prescription, Mkandawire concluded. Obviously such a contradictory position is unsatisfactory. To attain some congruence between diagnosis and prescription, we need to retrace our steps back to the diagnosis.

According to Mkandawire, the African state is today the most demonized social institution, vilified for its weaknesses, its over-extension, its dependence on foreign powers, its ubiquity, its absence, etc. The state, once the cornerstone of development, is now the 'rentier state', the 'overextended state', the 'parasitical state', the 'predatory state', 'the patrimonial state', the 'prebendal state', the 'crony state', the 'kleptocratic state' and the 'inverted state', etc.

Although this inflation of epithets has reached high proportions in more recent years, the tradition itself predates the 'crisis' years. Early criticism of the state in Africa came from the neo-Marxists whose own epithets to describe the pathological condition of the African state included the 'petty bourgeois state', the 'neo-colonial state' and the 'dependent state'.

To the Asian 'autonomous state' was juxtaposed the African 'lame Leviathan' (Callaghy, 1987), which is so beholden to particularistic interest groups and so mired in patron-clientelist relationships, and that constitutes what Bayart (1993) terms the 'politics of the belly' that has paralysed African economies. These problems arise from the tendency to treat conjunctural features of states as if they constituted structural or intrinsic features of African societies.

The neo-Weberian critique has focused on the failure of African states to establish themselves as rational-legal institutions and to rise above the 'patrimonialism' that affects all of them, regardless of their ideological claims and the moral rectitude of individual leaders.

Mired in redistributive activities imposed by affective relations, prebendalism or clientelism, so the argument goes, African states have not been able to provide the bureaucratic order needed to engage in long-term investment.

Like 'neo-patrimonialism', rent seeking is used in a procrustean manner so that it ultimately assumes the character of a bogeyman, partly because of the anti-statist ideology to which it has become tethered making it serve as an ideological weapon in the state-phobia that neo-liberalism has cast so broadly, and partly because of the protean definition assigned to it.

The significance of these 'impossibility arguments' is that the discursive framework they have engendered has led to the argument that the state in Africa is not capable of being developmental and therefore needs to be stripped down further and be buffeted by legions of foreign experts.

And so we witness in Africa the reinforcement of policies that continue to erode the economic and political capacity of the state even as considerable noise is made about 'good governance' and 'capacity building'. Rather than on 'capacity building', focus in Africa should first and foremost be on valorization of existing capacities through better 'capacity utilization' and 'retooling' of the civil service.

Learning the Wrong Lessons for Africa

Not only has the spectacular success of the East Asian 'Four Tigers' led to a re-reading of the role of the state in the developmental process, but it has also raised the question of replicability of their policies and experiences in other developing countries. Earlier recognition of this performance of the 'Four Tigers' was refracted through the prism of neo-liberalism so that the experience appeared shorn of all dirigisme (an economy in which the government exerts strong directive influence) and was cited as irrefutable evidence of the superiority of essentially laissez-faire policies. Subsequent analysis has shown that neo-classical reading of experiences of development in Asia has been tendentious, deliberately downplaying the role of the state in the 'success stories'.

These countries were far from paragons of laissez-fairism and, instead, were highly 'dirigiste' economies in which the states had 'governed markets' to ensure high levels of accumulation, technology absorption and conquest of foreign markets, beyond acting as a 'night watchman'.

The book: 'Beyond the Developmental State' by Vincent Wei-cheng Wang, from the University of Richmond - to be sure its aim is not to totally discredit the developmental state model, the author concedes that "state leadership and policy are relevant to East Asia's developmental history," but they argue that "the nature of society, culture, market, and evolving international economy is also important" (p. 8).

In all this, it is important to bear in mind the conjuncture within which such states will operate.

On the ideological level, it is important to stress how both globalization and neo-liberal anomie make the articulation and credibility ideologies of nation building and development extremely difficult. In terms of state capacity, there are indeed widespread concerns that globalization may severely restrict the room for manoeuvre of individual states in such a way as to make the notion of a developmental state difficult to visualize.

As difficult as the political and economic task of establishing such states may be, it is within the reach of many countries struggling against the ravages of poverty and underdevelopment. Lest we forget, by the end of the 1950s, all commercially viable ranch land was occupied through state intervention by the growing numbers of impoverished whites in South Africa when landlessness and the threat of social unrest were rising.

With the application of Broederbond advocacy and generous governmental support with resource and single-minded patronage, the white Afrikaners were able to raise their status and improve their economic fortunes by the mid-sixties. Surely we too can establish a developmental-interventionist state embedded in our own society and that is competent to engage the world and respond to the exigencies of the emerging global order.

Such a state should be both democratic and socially inclusive, with intertwined economic and social policies, as well as democratic and economic agendas mutually reinforcing each other and a competent bureaucracy to enhance state capacity. However, it is becoming increasingly recognised that many of the developmental 'failures' of recent years cannot be traced merely to technical, financial, or economic shortcomings, but must also be linked to the cultural and ethnic complexities involved in 'nation building'. For this reason, we need transformational leaders with conviction politics to establish a developmental state.

If the first generation of African leaders concentrated their energies on the politics of nation building, the new leadership should focus on the economics of nation building. Leadership is not simply about academic qualifications and credentials, but also wisdom and the ability to listen, take decisions and unite the people as one.

• The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely reflect my personal views as a citizen.

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