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December 2, 2009

Seattle + 10 = Copenhagen?

December 2, 2009

Should aid support patronage politics?

December 2, 2009
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In this month’s Prospect, Alex de Waal wrestles with the problems posed by Alex de Waalstate-building in countries where patronage trumps politics. This kind of ‘what do we do about fragile states’ discussion is one of the most intractable issues in development, so don’t expect simple solutions, but Alex (who is one of the most original thinkers on this kind of thing) seems to be arguing for an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, fund ’em’ strategy of supporting patronage politicians with the rather ill-defined aim of eventually turning them into the kernel of an effective state (pro-poor patronage?).

‘When Nato concedes a draw in Afghanistan, it will be because of its failure to understand the country’s politics. But a deeper failure will lurk in the background. In the past decade the west has launched a huge experiment to build capable states in the world’s most difficult countries. Troops, technical advisers and aid budgets are the tools of choice. The experiment is said to have worked in East Timor, Kosovo and Sierra Leone; now Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan are top of the target list. All are failed or fragile states where patronage is paramount and where the political arena is a marketplace, not a debating chamber.

How did we get here? According to the conventional story, countries like Afghanistan are in trouble because they can’t sustain order, manage a budget, or deliver services. So we provide funds to kick-start development, charities to provide services, experts to run departments, and troops to enforce the law. A helpful cocoon emerges in which the state grows stronger. And when this state looks enough like the Czech Republic, we hand over the keys.’

But Alex is sceptical about the whole project:

‘Even in tiny countries such hopes are fatally optimistic. Take East Timor, heralded as one of the UN’s successes. Its 1m people received $565m in support from 2002-05, backed up by Australian troops. But the country was soon back in crisis; in 2008 there was a coup attempt. The model is more unsustainable for larger countries: it would take tens of billions of dollars to similarly support Congo’s 66m people.

Look at statebuilding from another point of view: that of an embattled ruler. To him, all those dollars and foreign troops are a huge boon. The money can buy off some opponents, while foreign soldiers fight the rest. Strong, autonomous government departments, however, are a genuine threat. A chief of staff might launch a sudden coup, or a finance minister may put rival warlords on his payroll. Secret ballots are a problem too: it’s hard to pay off local powerbrokers under the eyes of election monitors. The ruler might speak the language of the rule of law. But the real game is buying loyalty. A well-managed, inclusive patronage system is often the only way of running such countries.’

His conclusion?

‘Today, it would be more cost-effective to ditch the extra troops and revert to funding patronage. This would mean different priorities, like taking control of the drugs market to deny the Taliban its best source of funds. A new patronage system could eventually be made fairer and more inclusive, perhaps allowing institutions to grow around it slowly. But this means thinking like an Afghan politician, not an international peacebuilder. If the west cannot follow this path, it will join the other superpowers humbled in the Hindu Kush. The war in Afghanistan will become more about salvaging Nato than about building a central Asian Denmark. And should Nato withdraw, others—perhaps China—will set the more modest goal of political stability, and pay hard cash to get it.’

What I like about this is Alex’s insistence on looking at politics as it really is, and on understanding the incentive systems and motivations that guide real-life politicians in fragile states (reminiscent of my friend Matthew Lockwood’s great book, ‘The State They’re In’). But his solution rather sticks in the throat.

Firstly, there’s every likelihood that this kind of ‘trickle down politics’ will never become much ‘fairer and more inclusive’. Why should it? Political stability will be bought by sacrificing political and social progress and ordinary people in Afghanistan, DRC or wherever will be left waiting indefinitely for jobs and services (see Oxfam’s recent survey of what 700 ordinary Afghans think are the real causes of their country’s malaise).

Moreover, I fear there has in practice been a lot more buying off of leaders by donors than Alex allows for, partly by turning a blind eye to graft, and willingness to let patronage-style politicians play significant roles. If true, he can’t say that his strategy has not been tried (and found wanting).

What other ideas might help? One might be to focus more on the local state, either at municipal or provincial level. That might mean accepting some patronage politics, but it might also increase the chances of delivering real benefits to local people in terms of services and accountability. Another would be to invest much more in civil society strengthening, rather than just state building, enabling local organizations – social movements, NGO watchdogs, faith groups etc – better to hold the state to account. Any other bright ideas?

If fragile states are your bag, have a look at the inaugural European Report on Development, entitled ‘Overcoming Fragility in Africa’ . The ERD is a long overdue attempt to provide a European counterweight to the avalanche of Washington-based analysis, opinion and proposition, and will be an annual.


  1. Interesting stuff. And why stop at fragile states? Donors are no strangers to the occasional donation to the constituency of on-message politicians, at least her in Tz.

    Re other ideas, I think you are making the mistake, with respect, of seeing patronage and clientelism as the preserve of politicians and the state. Yet where those things characterise the state and politics you will find that they also characterise other institutions – FBOs, NGOs etc. Which may encourage one to think of ways to “go with the grain” as someone once put it.

  2. The argument sounds correct, but can we stomach the implications?

    Supporting patronage would mean an end to the high-level governance agenda, and end to attempting “elections” of any value. Sure, arguably these areas are costly failures already.

    But the alternative is, to maximise the impact of our money in the developing world, providing funds through those who have beaten their rivals not so much electorally as literally.

    What are the chances that this would lead to press stories of “funding corruption,” collapsing public support for development aid, etc.?

    And perhaps more fundamentally, aer western aid agencies designed to stomach making the most successful bullies much richer on the grounds that those they’ve bullied might become a little less poor and desperate?

  3. Alex de Waal is precisely right. There is no point in denying the reality that politics in very poor countries works according to patron-client networks. Either you understand that and work with it or you will fail miserably.

    To focus on accountability and civil society strengthening is also precisely wrong in this case, these ideas are derived from advanced-country models that have no relevance to countries in which the basic collective action problems of state-building have not been solved. How can you hold the state to account when there is no real state to speak of?

    If they want to back Karzai they need to work with him and his knowledge of Afghan politics, contributing to the types of corruption that are necessary for political stability.

    Fairness and inclusivity, while desirable, are not a realistic goal for a country like Afghanistan – and their pursuit will not help economic development. Constructing capitalism is a very unfair and exclusive process. It is also very violent. The goal must be to try and make it as humane a process as possible. Inclusivity and accountability have nothing to do with this process.

  4. Correction:

    are western aid agencies designed to *explicitly* stomach making the most successful bullies much richer on the grounds that those they’ve bullied might become a little less poor and desperate?

  5. There’s a huge difference between not “denying the reality that politics in very poor countries works according to patron-client networks. Either you understand that and work with it or you will fail miserably” and expecting that in some way playing with patronage networks is likely to provide any kind of decent outcome.

    More specifically, getting a growth-enhancing patronage system (in the sense of job creation and broad-based economic growth) is fiendishly difficult to do even for insiders, let alone ignorant outsiders.

    Frankly I’m surprised Alex De Waal, who is a smart guy, is taking this position.

    We should demand 100% probity and accountability for donor funds, whilst still being smart about the kind of incentives and political dynamics we are creating and influencing.

  6. A view of patronage politics and technocratic approaches to statebuilding typical usually starts from the top down. What capacities are needed for a national Government? Who has the power to be able to provide leadership when a country appears to be falling apart?

    Both approaches tend to favour the existing political elite, and the official view of the what the State should be. In Afghanistan the official economy is dwarfed in many places by the black economy – and the invisible economy – subsistence farmers who have very little voice in the governance at all, by dint of remoteness, or exclusion as a result of gender, ethnicity, age or tribal allegiances.

    So what scope is there for turning both approaches on their head and promoting trickle up politics? …working community by community. It requires more patience, but in the end is likely to be more inclusive, and more resilient. The chances of ‘doing harm’ through promoting exclusion, corruption or bringing aid into disrepute are also smaller.

  7. This is a weird discussion to me. Given that the IMF’s role has generally been to promote policies which are, in fact, terrible for most countries, I think it’s far more useful to think in terms of Not Doing Harm.

    In general, every autocrat knows that he has friends in the business community and enemies in the NGO community. These are tough people who are much better at lying and playing people off one another than we would ever want to be. If we try to game them, we will lose. We can only succeed with direct assistance or disengagement.

  8. When I went to school I learnt that Magna Carta , one of the first fundamental documents of human rights in England , was wrestled from a tyrannical King John. Now I know that an occupying French military force help inform his decision to give his people more rights and restrict his powers. Hopefully in a few years time NATO will start to be written out of the history of Afghanistan.

  9. @ Adam Jackson

    ‘A growth-enhancing patronage system’ – nicely put!

    Yes very difficult – but at least you’d be specifying the problem correctly. Currently it’s all about anti-corruption which is just way off track.

  10. You’re spot on, Duncan. Alex knows perfectly well his suggested solution of funding patronage has been tried many times…..he lived in Ethiopia for god’s sake! There, western donors have been keeping compliantly quiet for a long long time, knowing that the recipient is sneering at them, while maintaining his patronage system (principally, the army) in tact. One thing is to acknowledge how the local political system really works – quite another is to get yourself embroiled in it! So, not much of a solution really, and not much of change from ‘business as usual’….

  11. I understood the West was striving a few years ago to create “strong leadership” in Afghanistan, which is in fact synonymous for unaccountable leadership. Giving a leader power, and then expecting he would not (ab)use it, is just naive. Indeed, by choosing a system leading to strong government, patronage is stimulated rather than accountability. A good thing to take the reality of power play into account, where not all leaders are saints. The proposal that playing the game will eventually turn out better is very much like constructive engagement with Mobutu: it worked very well, for thirty years, until he got removed in a coup. Or like giving weapons to local groups, like the Taliban, to fight your enemy, the Russians.

  12. I think that failed or fragile states show just how complex development really is and how difficult it is to try and skip stages of development and land on a liberal democratic developed status. The idea of funding patronage politics is odious at best, but the political institutions that need to be built to absorb the factions of power take a while to mature. I think the developed world needs to recognize and identify as best as you can the progressive rungs on the development ladder and rationalize their donations from that. No liberal democracy wants to fund patronage networks but if those revenue streams calm the failed state enough where the foundations of the political institutions can begin to sprout, then I see that as a success because it is step in a long journey out of the failed state and onto a path of development.

  13. what about the practice? what would funding patronage systems look like? We clearly won’t know exactly who is connected to whom, since these systems are complex and finely entangled.

    so presumably, we’d have to just give a lot of money to the people at the top to use as they see fit.

    wouldn’t that just be budget support?

    That said totally agree with Adam’s comments. A complex, atomised patron-client network is very unlikely to contribute to the establishment of a meaningful capitalism. Trying to make it do so is likely to end in tears.

    The political settlement itself needs changing; not necessarily to a western-style democracy with accountability etc. but to something that fosters capitalism. That could be non- or limitedly democratic and opaque, as it was in most places.

    What de Waal is correct about is that development support now tends to be fiddling on the margins, ignoring realities and achieving little. I just don’t agree with where he goes from there.

  14. Part of the problem, which Alex rightly implies, is the simpistic notion of ‘fragile’ or ‘failed’ states. In particular when that failure is only measured by the extent of deviation from the OECD norm.

    For some excellent alternative analysis of Pacific states, which provides a richer picture of what they call ‘hybrid’ political orders, by the University of Queensland’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies see

    This sort of analysis provides us with potentially a much more interesting mix of possibilities than either ignoring local politics or going completely with the flow.

  15. This is a superb discussion. I’d like to propose an idea that will likely stir up more debate – why do we even feel like we need to be doing any state-building at all? I am thinking about some of the recent “aid debate” issues, particularly the points raised by Dambisa Moyo. Humanitarian aid is most certainly necessary, but change in countries need to come from within.

    I think the key is finding solutions that promote the overall well-being of the people, which as some commentators have suggested likely involves intense focus on local politics and local systems.

  16. I agree that this is a very worthwhile discussion and that the idea of “state building” has become a burden, but I think we need to find a viable alternative before we can just abandon it. We still need to ensure that there are stable governments around the world that can not harbor groups that intend to harm us. Part of this is making sure that there is an effective government in place that can provide services and security for it’s people. At the early stages this type of government may not have a very “democratic” look, but may be the best option while the nation is developing. It seems to becoming more evident that democratic institutions develop as the nation does in most cases. As the people become more educated and achieve a higher standard of living, they demand it.

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