Development Is Not For States

We treat development and reconstruction like a simple recipe: As long as we stir in the right ingredients, the dish will be a success. Unfortunately, reality looks rather different.

Building effective states, ensuring cooperative and trustful state–society relations, and establishing the state’s accountability to society are three keys to development. OECD and the wider international community have learned these lessons from numerous concrete cases.

In today’s globalized world, states still reign supreme in many areas of life and because of this, it is fundamental to ensure that states are – and remain – effective and legitimate. Legitimacy means societal acceptance of the state’s organizations’ and institutions’ “right to rule.” Effective delivery of high-quality public goods confers legitimacy, as does gaining office and power via agreed rules of procedure.

In fragile states, without security for all and rule of law, legitimacy will soon crumble. Democratic governance, especially against this backdrop, must be founded on transparent, open and well regulated political competition with respect for human and minority rights. Promoting democracy without emphasizing inclusiveness, effectiveness and accountability can easily become empty rhetoric. Or worse, it can give rise to new waves of violence.

Yet sadly, political competition, institutional complexity and external funding often fuel instability, violence and elite rule in the name of democracy. The international community often “does harm” through failure to understand, as outsiders, local interests and incentives. The context and ingredients that lend legitimacy to many systems of rule are often quite different from the Westphalian models that frequently constitute the lens through which the outsider views these systems. For example, automatically equating the holding of elections with the establishment of legitimate authority is naive. Yet, this lesson has proven hard to take on board.

Only by playing to local interests and incentives can one hope to induce developments towards greater democracy. Those wielding state authority will not start meeting their citizens’ expectations unless it is in their interest to do so. Arab Springs, such as the situation witnessed in Tunisia, are the exception – not norm – in bringing about transformational socio-political change. An incentive-based approach to gradual change is often required.

It is clear in today’s context that if external political voices, finance and knowledge are to support change effectively, they will need to keep their ears patiently and astutely to the ground. Long-term democratization, inclusive buy-in, and frank and regular citizen engagement simply do not materialize overnight – especially in situations where the powerless are voiceless and the poor are powerless.

The lessons seem clear. Applying models or recipes and ignoring specific socio-political contexts are in themselves recipes for failure. Equating one post-revolutionary state with another is also a common mistake. High expectations are all too often met by over-promising and under-delivering. And where change stalls, frustration and loss of trust can quickly turn erstwhile citizen-supporters into advocates for militant action. Slow, steady, and patient labor to rebuild and cement confidence and the social contract, while consolidating peace building gains, is still the best way forward.

We have learned the lessons – but have we learned to apply them?

Read more in this debate: Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Rosa Brooks, David Chandler.

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