14th June 2022

Leadership Observatory 21: Elite bargains, leadership qualities & political settlements

Robin Diver

A group of people stand in silhouette beneath dark storm clouds, Hudson Hintze, Unsplash.
Image: A group of people stand in silhouette beneath dark storm clouds, Hudson Hintze, Unsplash.

As Australia welcomes in a new government, many of us will be reflecting on what this means for development in the Asia-Pacific. Understanding how change truly happens in development work is particularly important.

Therefore, today’s Observatory focuses on the core essentials of developmental leadership and change – what makes a positive elite bargain, what makes a developmental leader and why all development is political. And is it still worth talking about political settlements?

Development agencies need to recognise how they influence politics in the places they work

In a new DLP blog, Justin Williams draws on his research on a European NGO in the Amhara region of Ethiopia to argue that no matter how ‘non-political’ development aims to be, it will always change and interact with local power dynamics. Williams notes that the NGO’s success in building infrastructure led to some people wanting to vote for the NGO head in the local elections.

Instead of aiming to be ‘non-political’, those working in aid and development should ask how their intervention supports or undermines local institutions and developmental leadership.

What makes a developmental elite bargain?

In his new book Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose, Stefan Dercon argues that successful development relies on an ‘elite bargain’ between those with power and influence focused on growth and development. Without this, aid and development agencies are limited in their ability to support transformative change.

Dercon identifies three essential features of a developmental elite bargain: 1) The bargain must provide the basis for peace and stability; 2) The state must be focused on achieving progress but also be realistic about its own capabilities and 3) Those involved must be willing to learn from errors.

The book draws on examples from across Africa and Asia and offers suggestions for what aid and development agencies should do in context where there is – and isn’t – a development bargain in place. If you can’t get your hands on the book Dercon elaborates on his ideas in an FP2P blog and a Twitter thread.

Not everyone thinks ‘political settlements analysis’ is worth the hype; can this new book make the case for it?

In their important new open access book Political Settlements and Development, Tim Kelsall and his co-authors argue that in spite of the issues with lack of clarity around meaning, political settlements analysis still has the potential to be a useful tool. They set out a revised and improved definition of a political settlement: an ongoing agreement among a society’s most powerful groups over a set of political and economic institutions expected to generate a minimally acceptable level of benefits for them, that helps to end or prevent generalized civil war and/or political and economic disorder.

The rest of the book develops the theory, measures and tests it, and concludes that there is a strong relationship between power concentration and development outcomes. It also provides advice for how external policymakers should shape development policies around different types of political settlement.

What makes a good champion

In a recent FP2P blog, Duncan Green summarises ITAD’s report for the Gates Foundation on how to identify and support champions for your cause, and how to evaluate those efforts. He also points out that leadership is often neglected in the development sector (of course, we would agree!).

An effective champion must be persistent and have the right knowledge and skills. Issue alignment and influence are also important. Different types of champions, the issue in question and how open a particular context is to external support are all factors aid agencies and other funders must consider when using a champion building approach. Perceptions of too much external direction and influence can undermine champion’s local credibility.

How to support ‘agents of change’

In her new DLP blog, Resya Kania discusses Indonesia’s implementation of its national financial inclusion strategy, and the financial regulators, government and NGO workers who made it happen. Her research found that those who advocated for the financial inclusion strategy had a personal interest in the issue and initiative, but they were also supported within their institutions to push for change – they had trust, resources and were perceived by others as legitimate.

She argues that understanding the motivations of these individuals and the constraints they face provides opportunities to understand how to support other developmental leaders.

Did you know you can get our Leadership Observatory newsletters directly to your inbox? We send you updates every two months, with the latest news on developmental leadership broken down into digestible insights. You can unsubscribe anytime. Join up here.


Copy this link


Robin Diver

Robin Diver

Communications Officer, Developmental Leadership Program, University of Birmingham

View author profile