The primacy of politics in development and theories of political development


Understanding politics and its relationship with development remains central and crucial to both challenges and successes of development. As a good starting point, understanding the link between politics and development calls for either defining these two terms separately and then combined either as political development or development politics. Development has been defined to mean different things to various people. Some of the commonly referenced definitions are: development as growth (World Bank in WDR 1990), development as freedoms (Sen, 2001) and development as good change (Chambers, 1997). According to Leftwich (2000), defining development cannot be done without looking at it from a political angle and politics is key to understanding development failure or success. Looking at the two terms together forms an interesting combination of political development and development politics. While political development focuses on processes and systems, development politics is more about relationships and more so between the haves and have-nots or better still the rich and poor countries.

The primacy of development also enables us to reflect on the history of politics in theories of development. The modernisation theory has been acknowledged as a development theory that embraced politics as well as the democracy in the western world. This may demonstrated by how the United States proposed a one size fits all approach to development and pushed for this agenda through the Washington Consensus. Although this theory was initially introduced as part of an academic discourse, the modernisation theory is credited for explaining the shift between traditional/agricultural societies to more modern societies characterised by industrialisation (Gilman, 2003; Nickson 2012 and Greig, 2007). This political focus was however replaced by the economics debate 1980s-1990s and in the late 1990s, the political debate in development came back into the limelight as a way of explaining poverty, inequality and featured prominently in discussions on Millennium Development Goals.

Another interesting facet in development politics is the debate about how donors supporting development embrace politics in the development agenda. As stated by Unswoth (2009), politics has either been viewed as part of the problem and not solution and donor agencies struggle with various barriers to politics such as mental models on how development happens, maintaining status quo and balancing between financial and technical support and the short time-frame of some development projects. Despite this, several donors (DFID, World Bank and Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) have now moved on to embrace political analysis in development and this has helped to link social, economic and political research into the development agenda.

Having worked in the development sector with aid agencies for a total of twelve years in East Africa and now in the Horn of Africa, I consider the primacy of politics in the development debate only interesting but mindboggling. I appreciate that politics has not always contributed to development but also political underdevelopment and agree with Hickey (2008) that politics affects poor and marginalised popole in critical ways that leave them more vulnerable and less dignified. In Kenya for example, the 2007 disputed elections led to post-election violence leading to 800-1500 deaths and 180,000-250,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who were left in dire need of basic needs and services ( To date and despite several other election pledges, some of these IDPs remain unattended to 5-6years after the elections creating a further disconnect between these citizens and the state as well as widening the gap between the rich and the poor. In Somalia, following the collapse of the central government in 1991 and lack of access to basic needs and services, many Somalis fled to neighbouring countries such as Kenya. For example in 2011, the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya was estimated to have been hosting 400,000 refugees up from its carrying capacity of 90,000 (ACCORD, 2012). Despite this mass exodus of Somalis to either neighbouring countries or emigration to western countries, many Somali families continue to leave in IDP camps or slums in major towns as depicted by the pictures below.

IDP camp Bosaso slum

The link between politics and development also continues to be evident in my everyday work life in Somalia. This is well exemplified by the insecurity in Somalia where there are threats of Al Shabaab who have been linked to bombings and suicide attacks in Mogadishu targeting the government premises as well as International Agency convoys. This has continued to deny access to populations in dire need of basic needs and services of the most vulnerable women and children. While peace keeping forces from the African Union (AU) have sought to restore peace this has not been without challenges. In some occasions, the very same peacekeepers have either been accused of trading arms for natural resources and causing harm through sexual abuse of women. The latter formed key discussions in the G8 summit discussions in London held on 10th and 11th April 2013 where similar concerns of sexual violence resonated in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as evidenced in Indeed, the article on Getting Somalia Right this time available on presents a good challenge to those involved in development of Somalia. After reading this article, I couldn’t help but ask, are we continuing to do more of the same thing which don’t work and justifying this by using fancy terms? It is no doubt that there is better understanding required on what the Somali community want for Somalia. Civil Society and International Agencies do not need to shy away from politics in Somalia by focusing on peace building, governance, education, natural resource management and water, sanitation and hygiene promotion as well as limited advocacy to influence policy change. Aid agencies do not need to remain non-partisan so as to co-exist with other aid agencies, government, militia groups, private sector and communities all operating in a fragile environment.

To change the status quo, development politics discussions should be introduced with all stakeholders. Personally and in the context of my work, I believe I can integrate the development politics agenda in the analytical tools we use during program design such as stakeholder analysis, problem trees, analysis on the underlying causes of poverty and do no harm approaches. Also, during program reviews, as opposed to only taking stock of deliverables in terms of project inputs, outputs, outcomes and impact, contextual analysis in terms of development politics and taking stalk of what is changing and how this reinforces development or causes underdevelopment should be also be discussed as part of reflective and learning practice. In addition, documenting these experiences for others to learn will be useful given the current sharp focus on Somalia in various summits such as the G8, African Union (AU) and other one-on-one discussions involving Kenya and UK as well as Kenya and Somalia.

-ACCORD (2012). Conflict Trends. Issue 2. 2012. Protection of Civilians in Peacekeeping in Africa. Training for Peace
-Chambers, R.(1997). Whose reality counts? Putting the last first. London: Intermediate Publications Technology.
-De Waal, A. (2012). The New York Times. Getting Somalia Right this time. 21st February 2012 [online]. Available on [Accessed on 7th June 2013].
-Greig, A., Hulme, D. and Turner, M. (2007) Challenging Global Inequality: development Theory and Practice in the 21st Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
-Hickey, S. (2008), The return of politics in development studies I: getting lost within the poverty agenda?, Progress in Development Studies, 8: (4).
-Jones, P. (2013) Congo: We did whatever we wanted, says soldier who raped 53 women. The Guardian. 11th April 2013 [online]. Available on [Accessed on 10th April 2013].
-Leftwich, A. (2000), States of Development: On the Primacy of Politics in Development. Cambridge: Polity Press.
-Gilman, N. (2003) Mandarins of the future. Modernisation Theory in Cold War America, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.
-Nickson, A. (2012) Modernisation Theory Critical Approaches to Development. Lecture. International Development Department, University of Birmingham.
-Sen (2001). Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press
-The World Bank (1990). World Development Report (WDR):Poverty. World Bank: World Bank and Oxford University Press.
– Unsworth, S. (2009), What’s politics got to do with it?: Why donors find it so hard to come to terms with politics, and why this matters. Journal of International Development, 21: (6): 883-895.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s