By Adrian Leftwich
The recent interesting discussion on this blog about democracy and development in Africa is a spur to another issue – tucked away towards the end of the Joint Statement: the question of leadership. (By the way, the new President of Malawi said in a recent interview with The Guardian that at a critical point in the transfer of power to her as Vice President, as required in the Constitution, which was being threatened by opponents in the Cabinet, she made sure in a phone call to the head of the army that he would support her. One might think through the implications of that for democratic theory and practice…). I digress.
The Joint Statement did not focus only on the structural factors that have held back African development. It also points out that we need to understand more about the role that leadership can play at “critical junctures in reconstructing coalitions, initiating new political settlements or sustaining old ones”. This is what the DLP is trying to do (see www.dlprog.org). For many, the idea of ‘leader’ or ‘leadership’ (there is a difference: see below) is too contingent and hence too unpredictable to be amenable to good social scientific research. But it depends on what is meant by ‘leadership’. Moreover, the focus of attention on the role of leadership is not new. The Africa Commission report stressed it, so too did Michael Spence and David Brady in a recent paper, based on evidence from The Growth Commission (which Spence chaired). In their paper they point out that leaders in all of the 13 Growth Commission’s ‘success’ countries/stories put together coalitions of business, agriculture, labour and other political segments that were stable enough to make choices that promoted transformative growth (‘Leadership and Politics: A Perspective from the Growth Commission’ in Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 25(2).) Moreover the ‘leadership in these countries managed the transition from rural to urban… from relatively closed to open institutions and, in several cases … from autocratic to more democratic government’ (ibid).
The key point here is that it was not an individual ‘leader’, as the ‘great man or woman’ of history, who, on her/his own, was responsible for these economic transformations. Leadership is a political process, not a function of the personality traits of a leader. It was their political capacity to forge both political and developmental coalitions, thereby mobilising both people and resources to overcome critical collective action problems through institutional and policy choices that mattered (as Tracking Development has shown for SE Asia). For transformative growth and the resolution of collective action problems, the same will have to be the case in Africa, from above – and from below. African leaderships in both the public and private spheres (and especially in civil society), not only politicians and bureaucrats, will need to campaign for, negotiate and design their own institutional and policy choices that work locally. The structural constraints and opportunities (not to mention the often path-dependent legacies of history) in Africa are different, of course, (as they were between Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan). But that’s the point. Developmental leaderships in Africa at all levels will have to work within and around the structural constraints and opportunities of context. But there is always room for manoeuvre: after all, structure is not destiny; and agency is not omnipotence. As the old gentleman now pushing up the daisies in Highgate Cemetery (London) once observed: people make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Indeed: just so.
And in every country, in every sector and issue area (from gender to contract frarming) there exist and are emerging progressive (or ‘developmental’) leaders or ‘reformers’ (for want of a better word) – in the public service, armies, business, workers’ organizations, civil society, amongst politicians, the media, professions, education – formally or informally organized, within and beyond the state, who understand the need for institutional arrangements that help to resolve collective action problems and promote public goods. And contingent events, as ‘windows of opportunity’ or critical junctures, are often important in providing the opportunity or establishing incentives for reform. If ‘best fit’ is to mean anything, it needs to be associated with the room for manoeuvre that local developmental leaderships – incumbent or aspirant – can exploit to design their own locally appropriate and viable (that is ‘fitting’) institutional solutions to the nested collective action problems that define most development challenges. The fact that there will also be opposing collusive, predatory, supine or non-developmental patrimonial elites and coalitions as well only serves to highlight how central political contestation is, and has always been, in developmental processes.
The mantra of ‘understanding the politics’ has become common within the international community. But policy-makers in the donor community and intermediary organizations need to go further than such understanding. They need not only to understand the structures of politics, the distribution of power and (formal and informal) rules of the games, but also the games within the rules. They need also to be able to identify the players, the opportunities and their room for manoeuvre and how they work or can work politically; how developmental leaderships and coalitions can be facilitated and supported – at all level and in all spheres. As the same old gentleman in Highgate Cemetery also pointed out, philosophers have only interpreted the world: the point however is to change it. And the role of developmental leadership will be very important, as indeed will be the ability of such leaders to take their ‘followership’ with them.