Developmental leaders, dirty hands, and the dark side of collaboration

11th December 2013

A new analysis of poverty in India from the World Bank challenges claims that India's reforms and striking economic growth have failed to help the poor and disadvantaged. But the deprivation and inequalities in India (highlighted by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen in An Uncertain Glory) are stark. Such disparities are a reminder of the location of the 'new bottom billion' in middle-income countries (MICs) – and of the importance for donors of political engagement. According to Andy Sumner, national political economy is "the core variable to explain global poverty", and future aid to MICs will involve "quite new collaborative relationships".

But what about the difficulties of 'working politically' in contexts where corruption and criminality permeate domestic politics? A third of India's current MPs are alleged criminals, and the situation's similar in Brazil.

Donors grappling with the challenges of supporting domestic leadership that promotes development face the long-standing 'problem of dirty hands' – is political action that conflicts with moral norms sometimes justifiable? Where should they draw the line in supporting leaders who use their power to pursue developmental ends but who gain or keep that power through questionable means? In forging "collaborative relationships", when does 'collaboration' start to take on its darker second meaning and involve betraying principles?

Take India's Narendra Modi – an apparently rising political star with a controversial reputation on human rights. Currently Gujarat's Chief Minister, in next year's elections he'll be the Prime Ministerial candidate for India's main opposition party, the BJP. The UK government has ended a ten-year boycott of Modi, and in the last few months has expressed a willingness for "closer engagement" with him.

Perhaps surprisingly given his chequered reputation, Modi is seen by many as having played a key role in Gujarat's relative economic success, built on transparent and effective governance. These achievements contrast sharply with those of national government, where the ruling Congress Party-led UPA coalition has been embroiled in corruption scandals.

Critics, however, see Modi as a Hindu extremist. They argue that he failed to prevent, and perhaps even encouraged, attacks against Muslims by Hindu mobs in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which over a thousand people were killed. A Special Investigation Team of India's Supreme Court found that Modi had committed "no offence" (though Human Rights Watch accused the Gujarat government of a cover-up). But Modi did capitalise on the riots in his 2002 state election campaign, using divisive rhetoric. It was only after a resounding success in the elections that he and the BJP promoted a more inclusive development-centred message.

The development world has typically ignored the sometimes illicit means through which developmental leaders acquire and retain power, or has tried to compartmentalise the developmental and repressive sides of leaders and governments. (See, for example, the separation of Museveni's presidency in Uganda into 'Museveni I' [developmental] and 'Museveni II' [repressive] in the excellent book, Against the Odds.)

Authoritarian regimes have been represented as 'benign' dictatorships. For example, accounts of South Korea's 'development miracle' have tended to omit the "human rights abuses committed by state power", for which current president Park Geun-hye has apologised.

The universal 'best practice' approach to governance has been discredited, and the Africa Power and Politics Programme has pointed out the existence of 'developmental patrimonialism'. But how far should donors go in 'working with the grain' of different contexts?

The danger of 'good enough' governance, as Sam Hickey and Duncan Green have pointed out, is that it could end up selling people short: for example, an authoritarian regime might not stay developmental. And to what extent would working with developmental-but-repressive (if this is even possible) leaders mean working against progressive social movements and broader development efforts?

Thinking about other fundamental questions might also help development agencies in deciding whether to support particular leaderships:

  • Are the leaders developmental? Do they mobilise people and resources to promote development objectives? Do they form inclusive coalitions to overcome collective action problems? (For more on DLP's understanding of developmental leadership, see Heather Lyne de Ver's paper, Conceptions of Leadership.)
  • What is the political context in which these leaders are working?
  • What methods did these leaders use to come to power, and how do they stay in power?
  • Who are the main opposition groups in the country, and how do these groups challenge incumbent leaders?
  • Is there a risk of violence and human rights violations escalating?
  • Crucially, what are public and civil society attitudes towards the leaders and opposition?

Donors are used to making uncomfortable decisions, and are increasingly experienced in political analysis. But, in the case of donor governments, their decisions might be further complicated by interests of trade and development that pull in different directions, or by the likely opinions of their own voters. Transparent discussion of such sensitive issues – whether of donor self-interest or the potential developmental gains of supporting controversial leaders – is difficult. But international focus on in-country inequality, and therefore on political economy dynamics, seems likely to increase. If it does, donors might need to deal more directly and openly with the potentially double-edged nature of 'collaboration'.


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The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.


Niheer Dasandi

Niheer Dasandi

Niheer is a Research Fellow with the Developmental Leadership Program, based at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on politics and development, particularly on the political economy of aid, links between inequality and poverty, the process of policy reform, and political-bureaucratic interactions.

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