Review: "Against the Odds: Politicians, institutions and the struggle against poverty" by Melo, Ng'ethe & Manor

As a recent DLP Research Paper showed, remarkably little serious academic research has been devoted to the role of leadership in the politics of development, though it is commonly referred to in policy documents as an important factor. While there is a substantial literature in the fields of business studies, corporate management and psychology, there remains a significant deficit in relation to development issues, but two important recent academic studies have begun to reduce that deficit. 

The first is reviewed below. 

Marcus Andre Melo, Njuguna Ng'ethe & James Manor (2012) Against the Odds: Politicians, Institutions and the Struggle Against Poverty. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Reviewed for DLP by Eduard Grebe, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Social Science Research, University of Cape Town

Against the Odds by Marcus Andre Melo, Njuguna Ng’ethe and James Manor is an immensely useful book. It presents three case studies of political leaders who pursued ‘pro-poor’ policies in developing countries: Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Digvijay Singh in India’s Madhya Pradesh state and Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil. All three these politicians faced substantial constraints on their ability to propose, build consensus around and implement their policy preferences, but nevertheless made significant headway—hence the very apt title. It is instructive to examine in some detail the political dynamics of these leaders’ attempts to overcome obstacles to their developmental agendas.

A central argument of the book—one which is very eloquently made and well supported by the evidence put forward in the case studies—is that both political agency and political institutions matter a great deal for developmental outcomes. This may sound trite, but a surprisingly large proportion of research on ‘development’ focuses on political and economic institutions, to the almost complete exclusion of agency. Contemporary political science (not to speak of economics) is certainly guilty of this. On the other hand, accounts of leaders and leadership often overestimate the influence of leaders (much like popular history often reduces complex events to clashes between ‘great men’), without paying due regard to the constraints imposed and opportunities provided by institutional context. The authors’ greatest achievement is therefore probably their success in interweaving structure and agency so that what emerges is an account of ‘enlightened Machiavellian management of politics’ (p. 109) by leaders who are driven both by their own preferences and principles (even ideology) and by a pragmatic awareness of the limits to their power and the need to construct coalitions for policy change and institutional reform.

In all three case studies pro-poor reforms took the form not only of designing and implementing new policies targeting poverty (such as the introduction of universal primary education and Uganda and the Education Guarantee Scheme in Madhya Pradesh), but also of building and strengthening institutions. Museveni came to power facing complete state collapse, making state-building a prerequisite both of effective government (and of retaining power) and of any successful policy interventions. To a significant extent, new political institutions in Uganda took the form of local elected councils based on the ‘Resistance Councils’ first introduced in liberated areas during the war that brought the National Resistance Movement to power (and eventually incorporating five layers of local councils down to village level). But also in India and Brazil—where institutions were extensive and thoroughly entrenched—efforts to enhance political decentralisation and to enhance opportunities of the poor to exert influence over policy (and policy implementation) as well as to give the poor a stake in the political process were central to Singh and Cardoso’s strategies. The centrality of building and transforming institutions to all three leaders’ pro-poor policy efforts underscores the theme of both structure and agency being profoundly important.

The case study of Museveni in Uganda is perhaps the strongest of the three. Its detailed historical overview, incorporating Ugandan post-independence political developments, Museveni’s personal and political journey, the civil war and the NRM’s capture of power as well as the post-war efforts at social and economic stabilisation and state-building, provides a rich context within which Museveni’s policy programme can be interpreted. While Museveni’s convictions and political style receive a great deal of emphasis, as much attention is paid to the political context within which he operated. This includes both the constraints and opportunities presented by an institutional vacuum, which allowed him significant political freedom and enabled him to dominate the political process through his personal authority, but also severely limited his ability to pursue social transformation and forced him to focus on stability and rebuilding the state (including devoting significant resources to defence and military stabilisation) and rely on donors for material resources. Like the other two leaders, he showed great flexibility and adaptability—and above all pragmatism—in responding to this ‘political opportunity structure’ and sought to build coalitions for effecting change. As might be expected, pragmatism and coalition-building resulted in centrist policy positions and a willingness to seek accommodation with powerful forces, including donors. He nevertheless forcefully pursued certain positions, even in the face of opposition, probably as a result of deeply held convictions, including the centrepiece of Museveni’s developmental policy: universal provision of primary education. One major weakness of this case study is the authors’ failure to adequately account for the transformation from the open and inclusive ‘Museveni I’ (which is the focus of the chapter) to the more authoritarian and intolerant ‘Museveni II’ that increasingly sidelined civil society and successfully sought a constitutional amendment allowing him to stand for third and fourth presidential terms. It is difficult to accept the glib fashion in which these disturbing developments are dealt with. It also lazily repeats the conventional wisdom that Museveni’s HIV/AIDS policies reversed the frightening rise of the epidemic during the early 1990s, without engaging with the increasingly critical literature (including evidence showing the HIV prevalence declines could not have resulted from his efforts, see Grebe, 2012: 186-194), perhaps because this is more consistent with their optimistic interpretation.

Digvijay Singh enjoyed significantly less political freedom as Chief Minister in the underdeveloped Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, constrained by strong but often dysfunctional institutions, entrenched patronage networks of local political ‘bosses’, a moribund Congress party organisation and dependence on the favour of national party leaders, as well as difficult caste-based political divisions and a resurgent Hindu Right. He nevertheless sought to make ‘development’ the core issue in state politics and pursued policies intended to alleviate poverty and improve village life. These included improved water infrastructure and, most significantly, the Education Guarantee Scheme that created tens of thousands of new schools using innovative approaches like para-professional teachers.  In addition he pursued a relatively radical ‘Dalit Agenda’ which sought to improve opportunities for the most stigmatised (and generally poorest) villagers by improving access to land. Despite significant opposition and the constraints listed above, he sought to build a broad social coalition around this developmental agenda, including by drawing in civil society (although he later retreated from this) and, most importantly, by seriously pursuing a decentralisation agenda. The latter involved establishing and empowering local elected councils and served both to multiply demands from below (courageously, but also smartly, given the ‘demand overload’ faced by all three these politicians) in order to give poor people greater influence over development policy and in order to overcome opposition at higher levels of the political system and bureaucratic intransigence. This ‘new politics’ allowed him to make significant headway (for example in the form of spectacular increases in literacy rates) despite the persistence of (and his pragmatic tolerance of) the ‘old politics’ of patronage and caste-based mobilisation. This case study’s detailed treatment of the political dynamics of reform in Madhya Pradesh results in a persuasive case that centrism and pragmatism resulted in significant successes in institutional transformation and pro-poor policy, although at times it fails to penetrate the immense complexity of Indian society, leaving the reader longing for more thoroughgoing historical exposition. It also fails to resolve the apparently anomalous contribution of political decentralisation to poverty reduction, which the authors acknowledge diverges from more general experience in the developing world. 

Fernando Henrique Cardoso faced constraints imposed by the wide dispersal of political power in Brazil’s fragmentary political system (with fiscal federalism, regionalism, weak parties and an electoral system encouraging autonomy) and its ‘coalition presidentialism’, in which Presidents are directly elected but need the support of a broad coalition of parties. This left him significantly less political freedom than Museveni (or even Singh) had, and facing formidable challenges in driving his social and developmental policy agenda, including a general rigidity in public policy. He acted ‘adroitly as the manager of an alliance of diverse political forces, fragmented along regional, programmatic and ideological fault lines’ (p. 125).  Like Museveni and Singh, he responded by adopting a flexible, pragmatic approach and centrist posture, while vigorously pursuing certain pro-poor reforms, including administrative reform and enhancing the participatory opportunities and influence of the poor in the political system. Unlike in Uganda or Madhya Pradesh, extensive poverty relief schemes already existed in Brazil (although poverty and inequality remained intense) and pro-poor policy was relatively popular, even among the middle class and affluent elites. Nevertheless, the institutional impediments to extending poverty relief were formidable and the fiscal situation not conducive. He responded by becoming a ‘centre-left reformer’ while in power (p. 157), navigating the complexities of the Brazilian political system (including by creating bodies such as the Communidade Solidaria to act as a forum for consulting civil society, but which the latter sought to turn into an overarching structure to coordinate anti-poverty programmes). A number of initiatives, including the Bolsa Escola and Fundef aimed at extending education, were successfully implemented. And despite the fiscal constraints, overall funding for poverty programmes increased. However, given the limited extent to which the complex negotiations and manoeuvres Cardoso engaged in can be traced in a short case study, and given that pro-poor policy was already firmly entrenched and popular in Brazil, this case study seems somewhat less instructive than the other two. 

A key overarching conclusion that the authors draw from the case studies is that politicians should be central in analyses of governance and development—and they strongly challenge the view that development should be seen in technocratic terms, insulated from politicians and politics. In this sense it chimes exactly with the DLP’s theme of ‘bringing politics and agency back in’ (see Leftwich, 2009). A second and related conclusion is that poverty reduction is both politically feasible and can be politically advantageous to leaders in the developing world—a distinctly optimistic conclusion, but one that is supported by the evidence. 

A number of other common themes emerge from the three case studies. All three leaders, 

  • were pragmatic, centrist reformers who avoided extremes and sought to draw the poor into the politics of accommodation;
  • exercised self-restraint (including in dealing with alternative power centres, both inside and outside the state) and balanced assertiveness and accommodation;
  • understood that clientelism was insufficient to secure their political power; and
  • pursued local democracy and greater involvement of the poor (allowing also demand), including through institution-building.

The book has a number of limitations, although these are relatively minor. It is arguable that the authors do not deal sufficiently with the widely held view that development programmes are often used for clientelistic purposes. Although the attempts by ‘political bosses’ in Madhya Pradesh to scuttle the empowerment of local elected councils so as to maintain patronage networks and the use of federal resources for patronage by local leaders in Brazil are addressed (and clientelism is acknowledged as a serious issue in the conclusion), a systematic account of clientelism in the three cases (and the degree to which it was employed, tolerated or fought by the three leaders) is absent. Even if they do not believe this to be a central issue in these cases, its salience in the literature and popular perceptions requires that it be addressed in a more thoroughgoing fashion.

A further weakness evident throughout the book is the failure to present strong evidence for sweeping assertions. For example, the authors state that ‘Recent research on Brazil shows that progressive outcomes there are more likely if high-level policy-making is opened up to social forces active at that level’ (p. 83), but then back up this claim with a footnote stating that ‘This emerged from discussions with Aaron Schneider’, without referring to the published literature. Similar sleights of hand are sprinkled throughout the text. This is, however, not a fatal flaw and the authors do indeed provide persuasive evidence for their own deductions in the case studies, drawing on both the historical record and on their extensive interviews with key informants familiar with the records of the three politicians.

It is of course a fundamental problem with case study-based research that it is difficult to generalise and draw universal lessons from specific historical cases. This problem is best addressed by conducting disciplined, systematic analyses of cases that are not chosen in a way designed to avoid undue bias (i.e. not selecting ‘on the dependent variable’ or cherry-picking cases that support one’s argument). Even better is if the case studies are supplemented with other methodological approaches suffering less from bias (such as cross-country statistical analyses) and designed to test the hypotheses emerging from the case studies. While Melo, Ng’ethe & Manor have selected broadly ‘developmentally successful’ politicians, the cases do in fact vary significantly in the details of historical circumstances, institutional arrangements, regional and geopolitical factors as well as the personalities and convictions of the political leaders. As a result, the generalities that emerge from the study can at least credibly be considered ‘universal’. They further do not claim that these three politicians are typical, but rather that they ‘show what others may achieve’ (p. 163). Given the focus on the interplay between political agency and institutional constraint, it would be difficult to supplement this work (and test its conclusions) using less biased methodology—quantitative political scientists tend to investigate institutional factors and neglect agency for precisely this reason—but this should be considered an area for productive further research.

Despite its limitations, therefore, this is a book of the highest calibre and should be read by anyone with an interest in the politics of development and social justice.


Grebe, Eduard (2012) Civil society leadership in the struggle for AIDS treatment in South Africa and Uganda. PhD Thesis, University of Cape Town. 

Leftwich, Adrian (2009) Bringing Agency Back In: Politics and Human Agency in Building Institutions and States. DLP Research Paper 6, Developmental Leadership Program. 

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