The role of the state in development politics


‘The state’ has various connotations. The re-known definition by Weber is one that sees the state as a monopoly over territory/boundaries and legitimate utilization of force within its very own boundaries. Others such as Midgal (2004:p.16) define the state as, “a field of power marked by the use and threat of violence” while Chandran (2008) in a paper titled A definition of the state available on views the state as an association or entity that is political. While all these views can be seen as mere definitions of the term state, they actually imply the role of the state a role that has not only just started but evolved over time.

The history of the state and its role dates back to modernisation theory. At the time, the US was viewed as the model of a modern state and all other states were viewed secondary due to the fact that they were more traditionally run and heavily reliant on agriculture. However, with the modernisation theory, the US influenced formation of modernised states in Europe and supported industrialisation. In countries that were colonised, states were formed through principles of colonisation and decolonisation where structures for the state were inherited from one regime to another. During these processes, the state was viewed as a leading agent into modernisation, an avenue for aid channelling and a change agent for influencing the economy and society (Rutan, 1991; Batley, 2006 and Mackintosh, 1992). However, the heavy focus that had been bestowed upon the state faded away in the 1970’s and 1980’s due to its ineffectiveness, restrictiveness, invasive or unresponsive nature (Mackintosh, 1992). In fact, neo-liberalism took force and brought to the fore the state as a part of the problem of development. Mackintosh (1992) discusses in detail how the state became “unresponsive but invasive as well as inefficient but restrictive. Mackintosh (1992:p. 63) provides the following characteristics of unresponsive but invasive state: “Restricts freedom and imposes its view of how people should live, reduces people’s control over their private lives and rosters dependency rather than encouraging self-reliance.” For inefficient states, Mackintosh (1992) attributes these to private interests occasioned by monopolies and bureaucracies and resource wastage due to income earning sought for individual purposes. These attributes in the end render a state ineffective.

What remains evident for me is that challenges in the role of the state continue to manifest today. In Africa for example, the state has been accused of corruption through misappropriation of funds or simply outright embezzlement of funds. Moyo (2010) quotes two examples where Zaire’s former president (Mobutu) is said to have plundered approximately US$ 5 billion given as aid to improve the livelihoods of his populace while one of Nigeria’s former president (Abacha) stashed aid in Swiss bank accounts with US$ 700 million. Ngonyo (2010) points out how the Kenyan government embezzled Education bilateral funding worth Kes. 103 million (approximately US$ 1.2 million) leading to discontinued funding in 2010 by Department for International Development (DFID). While some of these funds may have been forcefully recovered, what remains true is that the state had a role to play in these instances. Also, in other countries such as Afghanistan and Mexico, there has been evidence of the role of the state or its agents in shadow economies such as those promoting drugs as well as the trade of natural resources like timber in Cambodia and minerals such as diamonds in conflict prone in Sierra, Leone, Liberia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Global Witness presents a detailed explanation of this via

Dealing with these challenges is indeed no walk in the park. Mackintosh (1992) discusses several neo-liberal ways in which states can be reformed such as through cutting back on employment, reduction in good and service provision, privatisation, contracting out of services, increased costs of state services, spending less on social services and introducing competitive processes such as tendering, creating autonomous agencies, decentralisation and devolution. As part of radical change, the reform agenda also included Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) in the 1980’s which failed a factor that has been widely attributed to poor governance.

The political regime in a country influences the state and its role. As evidenced by (Fritz and Menocal, 2006), if the state is not able to cater effectively for its citizenry then there is likely to be evidence of various types of states such as weak (qualified by limited decision making and implementing capacity), fragile (low decision making and implementing capacity) and failed states (collapsed decision-making and implementing capacity with complete disintegration which has been true in Somalia for over 20 years although now changing slowly).

From my personal experience, the role of the state has been compromised by lack of shared vision between its leaders, institutions and citizens. Also, various leaders drive their own agenda which quickly fades away with the entry of another regime. Some leaders in African countries have been accused of overstaying in power by tampering with the consitution and making terms open ended. Others, simply rig elections to remain in power. In incidences of this nature, the role of the state is totally manipulated and controlled by the leaders in their favour.

It is no doubt that civil society and private sector growth has blossomed following donor funding of proposals that depict the ineffective and inefficient role of the state. In most instances, this type of donor funding has resulted to uncoordinated development and duplication of resources. To redress this, donor agencies should support efforts that demonstrate synergies and complementarity, mutual working relationships between the state, civil society, private sector and citizenry. Indeed, none of these institutions can replace the state. Working in Somalia at the moment presents an excellent opportunity for me to be engaged in various development consortia involving the Government line ministries, local NGOs, International NGOs and the local communities. I am quite happy that in the last two years, there has been a shift in mind sets among donors to support this way of working which is likely to realize better sustainability of development initiatives.

-Batley, R. (2006), “The Changing Role of the State in Development”, In Alam, M. & Nickson, A. (Eds.), Managing Change in Local Governance. London, Commonwealth Secretariat 11-24.
-Chandran (2008). A Definition of the State. Department of Government. London School of Economics, London. Presented at a conference on Dominations and Powers: The Nature of the State, University of Wisconsin, Madison, March 29, 2008. Available on Accessed on 30th May 2013
-Mackintosh, M. (1992) “Questioning the Sate”. In Wuyts, M.;Mackintosh, M. & Hewitt, T. (Eds.) Development Policy and Public Action. Oxford, Oxford University Press 61-89.
-Migdal, J. (2004) State in Society: Studying how states and societies transform and constitute one another. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
-Moyo, D. (2010) Dead Aid. Why Aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa. London: Penguin Books.
-Ngonyo, A. (2010) Corruption in Kenya’s Education System: Need for Anticipatory Planning Strategies. London: Institute of Education, University of London.
-Ruttan, V. (1991) What Happened to Political Development? Economic Development and Cultural Change, 39: (2): 265-292.

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