Developmental leadership

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 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.

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5 Responses to Developmental leadership

  1. Peter Rundell says:

    Adrian, many thanks for this. You rightly insist on the importance of understanding “the games within the rules” – most of us know most of the rules of football and have opinions on the strengths of teams and players, but the game remains exciting and unpredictable. What we lack in development is a supporters’ manual (a “coaches’ manual” would impute too much agency to outsiders and too little to the actors themselves). One of the fruits of the DLP ought to be at least some hints for enthusiastic supporters, beyond simply stopping them invading the pitch and ruining the game. What kinds of roles it is helpful for outsiders to play, when visible external engagement can be helpful in building positive coalitions, and how to recognise the warning signals when such coalitions start to turn toxic, would all be useful indications. To press your analogy one final step, aging or out-of-form players can become a hindrance to a team for which they were once a vital asset; how can supporters best engage when a leadership which started with much promise (and which they may have supported eagerly, perhaps stridently) becomes an obstacle to further progress?

    Thanks once again.

  2. Yes, as Adrian says, leadership indeed is a “political process.” But it is influenced heavily by the initiatives taken by individuals. Just look at Joyce Banda’s first moves on the Malawian chessboard or those of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Likewise, observe what Thabo Mbeki refused to do, forfeiting his leadership legitimacy in the process. Political leaders (or even corporate leaders) operate within a given context. But the more effective ones dominate the dialogue, as John F. Kennedy did during the internal debates over the Cuban missile crisis. My views on these and other leadership questions are elaborated more fully in Transformative Political Leadership, just published by Chicago.

  3. Collin Zhuawu says:

    I tend to agree with Andrian that leadership is a political process which involves a number of actors drawn from a wide range of sectors of society. If indeed leadership is a process then it should have an inbuilt mechanism that allows its regeneration, for instance old players being replaced by new players with new ideas (at least in a democracy). This can be done through political contestation which brings about new leadership and new ideas which play a role in shaping the structural and discursive context in which agents act and facilitate policy-making and bring about change. Under such circumstances, elites and other actors deliberately come up with policy ideas to convince each other and the general public that certain policy proposals constitute reasonable and acceptable solutions to pressing problems – making leaders actively contesting in bringing about the most plausible and convincing solutions. In Africa, such a leadership process has worked very well in Mauritius which has allowed political contestation that has in a way acted as the inbuilt mechanism that allows leadership change which continued to engender suitable conditions for the development of the political economy of Mauritius over 3 decades. I would also think that the process has been successful because Mauritius is a democracy that allows policy making through deliberation and consultation among a number of actors (policy makers, negotiators, political leaders/elites, diplomats, civil society representatives and business representatives to decide on policy albeit on uneven terrain). Under such conditions politicians have limited control over policy formation and impact on authority over the state. However the case might be different in non-democracies.

    Thanks to Adrian for initiating such an important discussion.

  4. Adrian,
    You write that a developmental leadership understands the “need” to overcome critical collective action problems through institutional and policy choices. But is this ‘need to solve problems’ actually central for their political motivations? Political survival are surely as important for coalition building motivations as problem solving needs, but I assume that we do not disagree on that.

    The findings by Tracking Development (TD) are especially interesting on the issue of motivation. At least at the beginning of the development process, TD argues, leadership decisions in Southeast Asia were not based on long-term vision about desirable future goals – but on clear priorities about what is undesirable at present and what should, therefore, be dealt with urgently. That urgency, in turn, was motivated by serious communist threats (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia) or by fear of alienating mass support (Vietnam) as David Henley writes in a comment on this blog (July 2 2012. Good governance vs. collective action).

    In fact, leaderships here seemed to practice ‘disjointed incrementalism:’ “they were concerned with identifiable ills from which to flee rather than abstract ends to be pursued” as Charles Lindblom wrote more than thirty years ago in his famous article in Public Administration Review, Still muddling, not yet through.

    Do you agree that a central feature of developmental leadership is the willingness and ability to muddle through and to learn from past mistakes? And, if your answer is affirmative, why is ‘disjointed incrementalism’ not practiced much by leaders in African countries, it seems?

  5. Hans Andersen says:

    Hi everybody,
    I agree that political leadership is a central subject – and also that political leadership is a political process, not merely a function of personality traits of individual leaders. But I wonder if political leaders, whether at central or local level, are thinking mainly about collective action problems – and also whether progressive forces will be able to remain progressive or reformist once in power.

    Here are some thoughts about the role of political leadership based on experiences from Nepal:

    First of all, to be a political leader is not quite the same as to be a leader of a business corporation, for example. The leader of the corporation is typically judged by his or her performance in managing the business: if the business does well (makes a profit), the board may extend his or her contract. In contrast, the career of a political leader may depend less on demonstrated ability, say, to make the state provide public services, and more on his or her ability to benefit various supporters.

    Moreover, just like a business leader may be concerned mostly about his or her standing with the board (and perhaps less with being popular among the staff at the floor), so a political leader may mainly care about sustaining support among the most critical followers or financial contributors. By implication, while a business leader may strive to satisfy the board and those that the board represents (e.g. stock-holders), the political leader may focus his or her efforts on providing benefits to the most critical supporters: to those whose support he or she needs in order to be in power.

    Politicians may strive for a leadership position full of good intentions – they may wish to promote transformation and reform – but once in power, they may be confronted with many other agendas. In short, they often become the focal point of all those who wish to influence how power is used. It is not least followers and contributors who approach them often in expectation of benefits in return for their support. In turn, if a political leader does not respond at least to some of those expectations, the consequence can be loss of support and even that previous supporters become ardent opponents.

    Thus, political leaders may feel a “need” to pursue one or the other policy, not necessarily in consideration of abstract ideas about “democracy” or “development”, not even of their own official party programs, but instead in seeking to respond (or “adjust”) to what their most critical supporters expect or demand. Politicians may have to compromise on own original policy goals and ideology simply because their most critical supporters present them with demands which they perhaps strongly disagree with at a personal level but which they “have” to meet in order to sustain support.

    The nature of the expectations and demands of supporters may therefore be relevant to look at:

    Are political leaders (and politicians in general) faced with others types of expectations and demands in developing countries than for instance in western democracies: are the needs and problems which critical followers and contributors bring to the politicians of a different nature, and are the values and norms which they invoke in order to make the politicians respond also different? If political leaders “need” to respond to supporters in order to keep their positions, this question may be relevant to analyse: who are the critical supporters and what do they expect and/or demand?

    Crucially, what are the consequences when the political leaders meet the demands of their critical supporters: does meeting those demands promote or obstruct goals such as industrial development?

    It is common to expect political leaders to “show the way” and hope for political leadership to have the “capacity” to promote processes towards development and democracy. However, while political leaders can seem powerful on the surface, they can be under significant influence of supporters. My own research (studying Nepalese politics) suggests that political leaders may spend much time seeking to meet the demands of critical followers and supporters – here of small cliques of party workers and voter pockets, individual contractors and even mafia-related groups – not because they necessarily condone the demands in principle but in order to be able to sustain critical support. The (unintended) consequence is e.g. severe favouritism and misuse of scarce government resources.

    Political leadership (e.g. how politicians in leadership positions act and what policies they pursue) may vary, my suggestion is, with the nature of the expectations and demands of critical supporters around them (and with the length which these supporters are ready to go to have their way). I think this “equation” between the behaviour of political leaders and the expectations and demands of supporters could be relevant to look at in understanding political leadership also in Africa. Even aspiring reformers may ultimately give in to dominant lobby groups – groups that they cannot easily avoid – and if the demands are incommensurate with development, their policies will likely be, too.

    (Literature that has also inspired these thoughts include e.g. James C. Scott in “Friends, Followers, and Factions: A Reader in Political Clientelism”, 1977, by Steffen W. Schmidt et al.)

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