The ‘Primacy’ of Politics in Development


I was very fascinated by a debate staged by the Economist this past week with the motion “This house believes that Egypt will become a democracy within a year“. Following the arguments on both sides, the one thing which is easily noticeable from the opening remarks of the proposer and opposition is the fact that they had two different conceptions of ‘democracy’. The question came up several times from the floor indicating that there was a question of ambiguity with the term. To be sure, unless that was resolved it was obvious that each person will make her/his arguments based on their understanding of the term and will therefore be convinced they are right and the other wrong which will inevitably end in relativism. To avoid falling therefore into this same situation, I thing it is necessary for me ab initio to understand what politics is:

Etymologically, the word ‘political’ derives from the Greek politikos, ‘of, or pertaining to, the polis’. (The Greek term polis can be translated to mean ‘city-state’, ‘city’ or ‘polis’, or simply anglicized as ‘polis’. City-states like Athens and Sparta were relatively small and cohesive units, in which political, religious, and cultural concerns were intertwined.) Aristotle’s word for ‘politics’ is politikê, which is short for politikê epistêmê or ‘political science’. He thus considered politics to be a normative or prescriptive discipline rather than as a purely empirical or descriptive inquiry. For Aristotle a lawgiver, or the politician more generally is like a craftsman (dêmiourgos), a weaver or shipbuilder, who fashions material into a finished product (Politics:II.12.1273b32–3, VII.4.1325b40–1365a5).The notion of final cause dominates Aristotle’s Politics which also highlights the ethical dimension of politics that was dominant in Plato’s political thought.

Since we see that every city-state is a sort of community and that every community is established for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they believe to be good), it is clear that every community aims at some good, and the community which has the most authority of all and includes all the others aims highest, that is, at the good with the most authority. This is what is called the city-state or political community. [I.1.1252a1–7]

Taking this logic some centuries further, we find Hobbes whose main concern was the problem of social and political order: how human beings can live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict. In the Leviathan he makes his arguments along lines that make the distinction between human psychology, physics and politics difficult to establish. The opening chapters of Leviathan begin by establishing that the human body is like a machine, and that political organisation (“the commonwealth”) is like an artificial human being. He ends by saying that the truth of his ideas can be gauged only by self-examination, by looking into our selves to adjudge our characteristic thoughts and passions, which form the basis of all human action.

Carrying these ideas in my mind while getting into the lecture hall meant that confusion was inevitable when I realised that people where discussing ‘politics’ as a term far-removed from other aspects of human life. Hence, I could not help asking the naive question “What Is Politics?” I must admit that a deeper reflection on Leftwich’s definition did much in assuaging my confusion. When he defines politics as ‘all the activities of conflict, cooperation and negotiation involved in the use, production and distribution of resources, whether material or ideal, whether at local, national or international levels, or whether in the private or public domains’ (1983) and  goes on to state that the ‘…processes of development in human societies always involve the organisation, mobilisation, combination, use and distribution of resources in new ways, whether these resources take the form of capital, land, human beings or their combination’ (2000) I see a scholar who clearly recognises the fact that it is an uphill task to talk of politics, economics and development in different languages. His emphasis on the point that both politics and development revolve around the production, combination use and distribution of resources, which clearly are also central to economics, leaves little room for surprise when he states that  ‘…the central and dominant variable determining not only the conception and shape of development, but developmental success or failure in all human societies, is their politics’.

This last statement will raise a lot of dust in circles where there are attempts to create a divide between politics, economics and even development. Following my submission last week and the understanding of politics according to the Ancients, (especially Aristotle who considered politics to be a normative and prescriptive art)I am apt to give a thumbs-up to Leftwich for easing my confusion. Going by DFID’s position that ‘politics determines how resources are used and policies are made. And politics determines who benefits. In short, good governance is about good politics (2006), the whole picture of what Leftwich means by the ‘primacy of politics’ becomes clearer. Confusion can arise however when the word ‘primacy’ is taken to be an unequivocal term. Following his arguments to their logical conclusion show he did not take it that way.  The fact that Leftwich takes his argument to the point of ‘leaving out politics’ and later ‘bringing it back’, simply confirm that his hypothesis was tested against all comers and that he acknowledged the fact that there were other weaker actors in the process of development. Politics is not the only factor in development but simply the pre-eminent factor.

If one has lived and studied in ‘Africa In Miniature’ and ‘The Giant Of Africa’ where governance is ‘upside down’ and is manifested in all facets of societal life, then the person will have little or no room to doubt that if development studies is to make any meaningful impact other that the writing and publishing of wonderful volumes on the subject, then it must of necessity give primacy to both national and international politics… and some will add that it should be ‘pro poor’. But the many layered question remains... is there any such thing as pro poor politics? I am sure to find out this week

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