Development Practitioners Should Take Note of Local Political Economy

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By: V Santhakumar

1. Introduction

There could be many instances where even well-intentioned and well-designed development interventions may not lead to expected outcomes. There can be several reasons for such failures, one being the possible opposition from various local actors, or what is referred to as the ‘local political economy’. It is useful for development practitioners to have some understanding of the current status and dynamics of the social and political context of where they are working.

2. A short description of a political transition1

In a socio-political context that is controlled by the elites but where the majority is poor who have less control over public resources and governmental decisions, it is obvious that the elites will not have enough incentive to work towards broad-based development. However, there can be a gradual mobilization of the non-elites, which may encourage them to assert their rights over public resources. This assertion of non-elites (and their capture of power, where possible) may compel the state to respond more favourably to the demands and requirements of the wider population. It may lead to the availability of more private goods (like food) to them, which may change the equilibrium within which the poor people had been living, leading them to start hoping for a `better life’. This could encourage them to demand not only support for basic consumption but also those services which can improve their lives and those of their future generations. These include primary education and basic health-care, the provision and use of which enhance their status in terms of human development.

The political assertion of the non-elites or competition between different sections of them and the elites may enable the movement towards a competitive democracy. A political formation that comes to power through a competitive democracy may use the greater part of the public resources to meet the needs of more people as a way of ensuring their hold on the government. Through this process, even the elites would be compelled to spend more on the welfare of the non-elites. Hence, a competitive democracy leads to the maximum distribution of private goods among the poor and vulnerable groups. Hence, while the responsiveness of the state depends on the political economy transition described here, the success or the failure of development interventions depend on the nature of the state (or governance) brought about through the changes in the political economy.

3. What could be the role of development interventions in different contexts of political economy?

The expected role of development interventions or those actions that can usher in long-term social change could be different in different contexts of the political economy. In general, the role of development intervention should be to accelerate the process of desirable social change that may happen, albeit slowly, in any context. In situations where people are in a vicious cycle or low-level equilibrium trap because of which they are not in a position to move forward (or bring about social change) on their own, the role of an external development practitioner is to help them to get out of that equilibrium and move towards a higher level2. However, we should understand that there are two processes at play here: (a) an organic process of social change driven by the people themselves or internal actors; (b) a push given by an external actor. Both these processes are important, and we should not overlook the importance of internal struggles. Moreover, the external `push’ should not be made in such a way that it restraints the internal evolution.

3.1 Development actions in an elite-controlled society

In an elite-captured context, we understand that the masses are less likely to have sufficient private goods and so the real challenge for development practitioners would be to build from scratch, especially the provision of services, such as education and modern3 health-care. People in such localities may be surviving through subsistence livelihood options in agriculture, cattle rearing or forest dependence. The productivity of such occupations is low, but the equilibrium marked by high fertility and family size is sustained through higher levels of mortality, including those of infants. The infrastructure for enhancing the productivity of such occupations could also be minimal in an elite-captured context, in fact, literacy or schooling itself can be an important supporting infrastructure. Hence, development practitioners in such contexts may feel the need for the provision of a number of private goods and investments.

The elite rulers are less likely to take an adversarial position against such provision, even though there could be attempts by them to divert the benefits of such interventions to groups which support them. They may oppose actions that they see as a threat to their long-term sustenance, but not against the provision of food, primary schooling or basic health-care. Historically too, we know of such provisions being made in poorer and elite-controlled societies by outsiders like missionaries associated with the colonial rulers. Although, in such cases, the possible reason for opposition from local elites could have been against the attempts towards religious conversion. In the case of benevolent elite rulers who are interested in providing such services, the external actions could be to supplement the internal provisions or enhance their quality.

In elite-controlled societies, people are likely to expect or be comfortable with a patronage relationship with the `providers’ (including development practitioners). The resources (like land) in such societies are likely to be controlled by a few feudalistic individuals and people at large may be working as tenants or workers for a few owners. Given the monopsony nature (that is, single or few buyers) of the labour markets, the majority may be dependent on one or the other landlord. The relationship between them is one of patronage-seeking and patronage- providing. Other relationships, such as that between the ruler (representative) and the people or that between an external philanthropist and the beneficiaries, are also cast in such patronage forms in the minds of the people. This may encourage them to `plead’ for what they need (as opposed to `demand’4). This may be confusing for development actors who may have only been exposed to a different political economy (for example, a reasonably developed democracy). Hence, development practitioners need to have a proper understanding of the social context and its compulsions, along with a sensitivity which deters them from exploiting the vulnerability of the situation (like the manifestation of the patronage relationships) if their objective is long-run social change.

3.2 Development actions where non-elites are asserting their rights

When there is a mobilization of counter-elite forces in elite-controlled contexts, it may lead to an intense political contestation. The role of the external development actors becomes more complicated in such a politically-charged society where they may be seen as collaborators of one or the other party based on real or imaginary reasons. The elite-formations may see the educational and similar activities among the masses as those breeding social opposition against their control and may develop an adversarial attitude towards the development practitioners. On the other hand, the counter-elite formations may not see the actions of the development practitioners (especially, non-political actions, such as the spread of education or health-care services) as adequately `radical’ or `pro-poor’, and this may make them indifferent, if not adversarial, to these interventions. Moreover, the evolving `norms’ in politically contested societies (which are also likely to be emotionally charged with possibilities of violence initiated by different parties) may not facilitate the work of the development practitioners who are `neutral’ actors.

Theoretically, the counter-elite forces should be interested in the enhanced consumption of private goods by the non-elite majority, but they may already be working towards that objective (especially if they acquire power) and may not appreciate the interference of external development practitioners. The potential for conflict between the Christian missionaries and the Maoists or a Dalit political formation is an example. Also, based on their ideological or social nature they may or may not be interested in the provision of certain private goods, such as schooling. If they are, there can be contesting views between them and the external development agency on the content and nature of education, or the priority in terms of social action. The counter-elite force may perceive the intentions or work of external development practitioners as an obstruction in its own desired path for social change.

Even though the people at large may be expecting or sustaining patronage relationships with rulers or leaders of political formations, the idea of `rights’ may emerge in situations where the non-elites get mobilized. This is especially so if such mobilization is against the local elites (feudal landlords and others who control resources) on the basis of class, caste or other social identities. Such mobilization may inform the people of their basic rights and how they are being denied these by the elites and the powerful.

A development practice moulded in the form of patronage provision may encounter many challenges because in such relationships, the providers do not expect `questions’ from the beneficiaries on the nature and content of what is being provided or the processes followed. On the other hand, meeting the `rights-based’ expectations are also challenging for the providers. Hence, the relationship between the external development practitioner and the beneficiaries may have to evolve as they internalize or accommodate the gradually developing notions of rights.

Therefore, it is not surprising to see a not so conducive environment for external development practitioners as part of the initial political contestation in a poorer and elite-controlled society. However, such political contestation – especially the one that can evolve into a competitive democracy – is important and hence the external actors should encourage this process and should not work against the political contestation if their objective is long-term social change. Moreover, external practitioners should not assume the responsibility of being the primary providers of any particular private good (including education or health-care) but should encourage the rulers (whether these are controlled by the elites or the counter-elite forces) to take a major share of this burden. The external actors should always see themselves as facilitators or as those assuming supplementary or complementary roles. The main drivers of the social change in any context, have to be the people themselves backed by the political forces that mobilize them.

3.3 Development practice in a competitive democracy

The next stage in political economy is the development to a competitive democracy. As mentioned earlier, it is through a competitive democracy that people at large get a wider array of private goods from the state5. It is the competition between the parties, and their self- or political interest to be in power that drives the provision of private goods. Through this process, almost all sections of society may get access to a wide variety of private goods, which includes provisions such as the expansion of school education and primary health-care.

The competitive democracy or its initial stage namely, competitive populism, throws up different challenges to the development practitioners. First, people know that it is their vote or the self or political interest of the politicians which enables them to acquire higher levels of private goods from the state and so they are willing to bargain for more provision from each party in the fray. Secondly, the patronage relationship between the ruler (the politician) and citizen is changing in this context with the citizen assuming a ‘client-like’ role and regarding each politician as an agent who can mediate the provision of private goods from the state. There will be a competition between different political intermediaries depending on the deepening of the democracy. Hence, people are willing to select one and reject others (just like they deal with different sellers of a product in a market). This situation poses opportunities and challenges for the development practitioners. First, the increased quantum of public provision of private goods by the state may reduce the burden on the non-governmental actors in this regard. However, the decline of patronage relationship and their increased ability to bargain for better services from the state would also mean that people may expect or exercise a similar relationship with the non-governmental development practitioners too. They may develop a notion that there could be some self-interest (or profit-motive) driving the actions of the non-governmental organizations and it may be difficult to convince them that the real motive is altruism. People may demand `more’ without being concerned about the provider’s ability to serve6. Given their experience in getting private goods from the state at highly subsidized prices, they may not be ready to pay even if they can afford to and may expect the state or external actors to meet the cost. Hence, there can be several factors that may affect the motivation of external development practitioners in a context where the political economy is characterized by competitive populism.

3.3.1 What could be the role of development practitioners7 in such competitive democracies?

i. Though there can be a competitive democracy or a deepening of democratization at the macro-level, elite capture (or inadequate mobilization of non-elites) may continue to persist in many micro-contexts. Many villages in different states of India, which witness fairly competitive democracy for the elections of state governments continue to have elite-controlled power structures, even local governments. This can happen even if sections of the non-elites have been mobilized and they have established monopolistic control over political intermediation, which may lead them too to neglect the needs of other sections of people and they may become local elites over a period of time, creating similar problems as that of elite-capture. In such a setting, enabling social change and seeing that the non-elites get basic goods such as education could be the objective of an external development practitioner. They can expect support from state-level political or governmental actors for such micro-level actions.

ii. Even when the competitive democracy leads to higher investments in the provision of private goods, this may not lead to a higher or improved quality of provision of a particular private service. For example, there may be greater investments in school buildings or efforts towards appointing teachers, but this does not mean that the quality of education is improved. Hence, development practitioners may have to complement or supplement what is provided or attempted by the state. (This should be the case in any society, it may be more so in the poorer societies which start to benefit from a competitive democracy.)

iii. Yet another issue related to the two previous points is that the actual provision of a private good does not depend only on the investments for providing it. It requires consistent vigilance on the part of the potential beneficiaries to see that investments lead to actual provision. In the absence of demand by parents, the local schools may not function well, or if consumers do not demand, the local ration shop may not operate fairly. As noted in point number 1, even when there exists competitive democracy at the state level, there may be elite-control in villages and the school or the ration shop could be meeting only the needs of the elite and neglecting those of the majority. Making governmental provision work for everybody can be an important task of the development practitioners.

iv. There may be people who have lived in poverty and underdevelopment for such a long time that they may not demand or use certain services, even if these are made available to them by the state, such as education and modern health-care. Ignorance and uncertainty regarding the potential benefits from such investments could be the primary reasons and their reluctance can be stronger if they belong to the vulnerable social groups and don’t see many among them using such services as education or aspects of modern health-care (like contraceptives, institutional delivery of children and vaccination). Such reluctance may remain even with the growth of their incomes. It has been documented that children from certain social groups in America withdraw from schools earlier when there are more opportunities for work. Similarly, the increase in the wage rate of unskilled workers seems to be encouraging boys from certain social groups to leave schools early, in India. The increase in agricultural incomes of traditional farmers by itself need not encourage their families to use modern health-care or education opportunities. They may continue with bigger family-size, inadequate schooling for girls, and early marriages, all of which may have a negative impact on their sustenance in the long run. Hence, just the provision of basic goods or an improvement in the objective situation may not create adequate demand for certain goods and services the consumption of which is necessary for improving human development. Development practitioners have an important role in helping the creation of such demand. The need for such demand creation for addressing the issues of school education in India is discussed in detail in Santhakumar et al (2016). Such demand creation has to be seen as part of `modernization’ and in the absence of conscious attempts towards modernization, we cannot presume that everybody in a poorer society would move forward in terms of basic human development.

v. A transition in political economy from elite-capture towards counter-elite capture and then to populist competition through the process of politicization and democratization though is useful in its own but expecting it to result in better governance immediately, is unrealistic. In other words, it would be incorrect to expect democratization and good governance to always move synchronously ahead. Some instruments for achieving good governance like `citizens’ charters’ or village assemblies, even when available may not be used by the citizens under elite capture, counter-elite capture or competitive populism. This is so since the relationship between citizens and politicians (or the government) varies in different contexts. Under elite capture, citizens (or the ruled majority) may expect `something’ from the state based on the benevolence of the ruler. Under counter-elite capture, the citizens who have supported such capture, expect rewards including basic goods (and a share of public resources for private benefit) and not merely good governance. Under competitive populism, voters expect the parties to distribute basic goods or carry out cash transfer as promised during elections. Moreover, those who expect private goods from the counter-elite or populist governments usually develop different levels of personal relationships with politicians. Populist politicians are not interested in creating a transparent rule and allow the officials to deliver private goods without any intervention. There has to be enough scope for discretion at different levels to signal that it is not the `neutral’ government that delivers these goods, but it is due to the intervention of the particular politician that benefits a citizen or a group. It is through this process that the mutual `give and take’ relationship between the politician and the voter is established. This relationship that prevails for private goods may be used for getting public services too. When a citizen wants a license to construct a house from the local government, he may want to use the ‘give and take’ relationship that prevails between him/her and the politician rather than expecting the government to deliver the service dispassionately, simply based on rules. In sum, the ways used by citizens to get service from politicians can be different in different political contexts and in certain contexts citizen-charters or similar instruments may be of little use.

On the other hand, the use of instruments to improve governance, without understanding the political context, may lead to surprisingly unpleasant results. This is true with other accountability measures including public forums or citizen assemblies to scrutinize public expenditure or the right to information (RTI) act or formal anti-corruption measures. This too poses challenges for the development practitioners. Development practitioners may attempt interventions to improve governance in contexts where competitive democracy prevails but they need to understand the incentives that may be working against the success of such interventions. The potential constraints in the design of such interventions should be taken into account. It may be possible to carry out such governance interventions in some areas or for specific groups of people (who are likely to support) or to demonstrate the wider social benefits. These efforts may have to be tried as experiments to gradually develop enough social support for them.

3.4 Development practice in a liberal democracy

The next stage in political economy is the deepening and advancement of the democracy. In an advanced democracy, many people may not demand private goods from the state (and instead their demand would be for public goods, including infrastructure). The phase wherein the democracy matures and the competition between political parties is mainly about the provision of public goods (or a combination of tax and public goods) and not so much about the distribution of private goods, is called a liberal democracy here.

Moving towards such a regime requires changes in the social demand. It would mean that at the individual level, people would be willing to trade off the private goods they are currently receiving for more public goods. At the aggregate level, there should be a significant section of the society that considers such a trade-off, beneficial. Moreover, the electoral competition would mean that the important classes in the electoral politics should also consider such a change, beneficial. Such a change in the demand of people has to be sensed by the competing political parties. This change in demand may occur through the emergence of a middle class which depends on markets for their consumption, wages and investment. They then develop incentives to demand good governance as understood within a liberal democratic framework. Hence, the political will to bring about good governance depends on the electoral importance of this middle class. The examples can be seen in India and other countries where such middle class plays a crucial role in electoral politics and thereby enables some visible changes in terms of improving governance and reducing corruption. However, somewhat ironically, such a middle class emerges out of the policies of distributing private goods including education, facilitated through non-elite capture and competitive populism. Hence, it is through the populism that societies come out of populism!

Development practitioners have an important role towards the emergence of a liberal democracy. Though the emergence of competitive populism creates the underlying political conditions for the distribution of basic goods and services, such as food, education and basic health-care, development practitioners can ensure that all sections of society benefit from them. The spread of education and use of higher educational facilities by a smaller section of these schooled people, and their potential employment in skill-requiring economic activities may then create a middle class (in terms of the income hierarchy).

Economic growth is needed for the emergence of the middle class, and one may wonder whether development practitioners need to play any role in facilitating such growth. The role of the development practitioners is to facilitate development in totality and not merely economic growth. It is relatively easy to achieve higher levels of economic growth (through market-based approaches and with private investments) but it need not benefit significant sections of a country’s population if they lack education and necessary skills. Therefore, the main goal of development practitioners should be to achieve such a broad-based development.

Even when people start consuming basic goods and schooling, they may not demand liberal democracy or work towards certain desirable ends in terms of development. Though people may gain incomes adequate to categorize them as part of the middle class, there may not be appropriate changes in social and cultural attitudes required to make them demand a liberal democracy which respects the rights of all individuals. This is much more challenging in countries like India. Due to the traditional caste hierarchy, and the access to physical, social and cultural capital enjoyed by the upper caste sections, it is not surprising that they get the benefits of education first and hence can corner a greater share of the gains of economic growth. The ownership of resources for certain groups of people may give them higher `rents’ as part of the general economic growth. The persistence of caste divisions and the historical disadvantages encountered by the so-called lower-caste groups may discourage them from using the education facilities even if these are provided. Empirical evidence indicates such a situation in India (Santhakumar et al, 2016). This would mean that the majority of these so-called backward social groups may continue to be unskilled workers and gain lower incomes. The correlation between social grouping (like caste) and poverty is fairly strong in India.

In such a situation, the economic growth may create a middle class which predominantly belongs to the upper caste groups. This nature of the ‘economic’ middle class may enable it to continue with attitudes not very conducive for the emergence of a liberal democracy. This may lead to the persistence of feudal and/or traditional conservative attitudes. Those sections which receive higher rents as part of economic growth need not have the incentive to build stronger democracy since they may see benefits in continuing with patronage networks and traditional social/cultural capital. Moreover, in such a context, caste divisions continue to persist. The lower caste groups may see mobilization in the name of their social identities important for resisting the caste-driven attitude of the elites and the middle class. When society continues with such traditional divisions and attitudes, people may not have an incentive to work towards a kind of modernization which encourages them to get out of undesirable norms, beliefs, and community networks. Hence, political parties which are based on caste or religious ideologies, even while they distribute a greater part of the public resources for private goods consumption as part of the emergence of competitive democracy may not work towards modernization. This could be an important area for development practitioners to intervene. Changing the attitudes of the economic middle class to those needed for liberal democracy is an important task. Making development broad-based and ensuring that the economic middle class emerges not only from certain social groups but from all is a pre-requisite in this regard. Hence, working towards goals such as `quality education for all’ is important.

Even when there is a sizable middle-class demanding better governance, collective actions coordinated by concerned individuals are required. This is necessary to not only demand changes in formal institutions (which may be needed for better governance) but also for the enforcement of these demands. We may consider RTI in India. This is a product of conscious action on the part of non-governmental actors. However, having an RTI Act alone is woefully inadequate. Concerned citizens should be willing to use the provisions of the act with an objective to reduce corruption or to improve the effectiveness of governance. Creating awareness among the people regarding their rights with respect to acts like the RTI is crucial. There are many such provisions for socially conscious actions to enhance the transparency of the government’s functioning and to ensure that the democracy functions well.

4. Conclusion

Achieving development which is sustainable, less inequitable and respecting the basic rights of all human beings (irrespective of class, race, caste, religion, gender or sexual orientation) and ensuring the basic survival of all citizens are desirable goals of development. In that sense, even the developed societies are facing problems of unsustainable and inequitable development. Hence, development practitioners are needed not only in underdeveloped or developing societies but also in the so-called developed ones. Achieving sustainable development requires strong changes in the consumption behaviour and attitudes of the people. For example, when income-growth enables people to spend more money for a cleaner environment, it may not happen as a consequence and will require strong social persuasion and coordinated collective actions. This is essentially due to the public-good8 nature of the `clean environment’ and the possibilities of free-riding in this regard. There is a positive relationship between consumption and economic/income growth and it may create tension in the society if the benefits of income/economic growth are not diverted towards more socially benign ends. A part of such diversion of incomes from increased material consumption to socially useful purposes could be beneficial for individuals too if we learn lessons from the happiness studies9. However, this may not be obvious to all. Whether it is for such reasons, or for enhancing the sustainability of overall development, there may be a need for awareness creation, campaigns, experiments, and the exploration of technological and managerial solutions which use fewer resources. This could be an important space for action by the development practitioners.

Actions by concerned individuals and organizations are needed to meet other desirable goals of development. Regressive social norms continue to persist and conscious actions may be needed to change those, for example, issues related to gender. Even the sections of the society which witness income growth and attain affluence are not necessarily rid of gender norms which are highly restrictive for women. We hear stories of Indians living in the Western countries coming back to India to ensure traditional (even forced) marriages for their daughters. The social attitudes towards sexual minorities and their demand for legitimate rights is another example. Regressive attitudes on such issues prevail not only in developing societies such as India but also in the developed ones. Changing such attitudes and creating a society which respects the rights of men, women and sexual minorities require social actions. This could be yet another space for intervention by development practitioners.

However, there is an issue of sequencing here and this is more important for countries like India. If large sections of the country remain uneducated and live in poverty or at very low levels of incomes, the first priority should be to ensure basic human development that enhances their living standards. In the absence of this, it may be very difficult to achieve higher level goals such as ecologically sustainable development or even ‘good governance’. We have already seen that underdevelopment may sustain a particular political economy and that need not be one in tune with ‘good governance’ as understood within the framework of a liberal democracy. Similarly, people in poverty or low-level equilibrium traps may not be in a position to use natural resources sustainably (this is not to say that the behaviour of the richer sections of the society is conducive to ecological sustainability) or to control their family size. These can also pose challenges for sustainable development. Hence, eradicating poverty and achieving minimal levels of development through actions such as `schooling for all’ are prerequisites for encouraging society to aim at higher level goals such as sustainable development.


V Santhakumar


Santhakumar, V. 2014. The Roots of Ill Governance and Corruption. New Delhi: Sage.
Santhakumar, V. Gupta, N. and Sripada, R. 2016. Schooling for All in India: Can We Neglect the Demand? Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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