Historical politics and its importance in development

Today we explored the relationship between politics and development and how now more than ever development requires a tactful, politically sound approach by all players to achieve it’s objectives.This prompted me to consider the importance of historical institutions and politics in development and how this may help in understanding present-day institutions and their effect on development.


It is acknowledged in recent development theory that institutions are important (Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, 2001) and although historical background of a country is considered in development projects, it is not to the depth required to understand the complex power relations that are at play in conflict ridden regions such as Africa or the Middle East. 

The importance of traditional institutions in state building and development can be witnessed in Melanesian societies in which the ‘bigman’ approach of local leadership is a native institution. A bigman must assert his status by issuing gifts to his supporters (usually kin based) whereas politicians (according to western democratic theories) are to act in the interest of citizens not just supporters. As Boege et al., (2003: 603) points out this may present a dilemma for a bigman who is also a politican as it “provides a rationale for the re-election of ‘corrupt’ politicians”. It is vital to understand the native institutions of Melanesian countries in this context especially when designing programs or strategies for further development as simply labelling this practice as corruption is not going to fix the issue and may even polarise those who believe in the bigman system.

The argument that traditional institutions play a great role in understanding current development is further supported by the notion of “institutional mono-cropping” (Evans, 2004: 31). This idea stems from developed countries imposing their institutional systems on other countries whilst neglecting the traditional institutions and local context of that country; which has not been very effective for development in the global south. This is further enforced by Clements et al. (2007) who warns “attempts at state-building that ignore or fight hybridity [of political order] are likely to experience considerable difficulty in generating functioning, effective and legitimate systems.” Integration or at least understanding these institutions and their impact on development is the best way to avoid institutional mono-cropping.


Given politics lies behind institutions, it is of paramount importance that all types of institutions are considered when designing programmes for development. That is, native, pre-colonial, colonial, post- independence and current institutions – with particular emphasis on native and pre-colonial institutions which are quite often overlooked. If implemented, this will provide a more holistic approach to ensuring aid agencies find  “viable second-best or out-of-the-box options that are aligned with country and sectoral realities” instead of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach (Carothers and de Gramont, 2014). 


Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S. and Robinson, J. (2001). The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation. SSRN Electronic Journal.


Boege, V., Brown, A., Clements, K. and Nolan, A. (2009). Building Peace and Political Community in Hybrid Political Orders. International Peacekeeping, 16(5), pp.599-615.

Clements, K., Boege, V., Brown, A., Foley, W. and Nolan, A. (2007). State Building Reconsidered: the Role of Hybridity in the Formation of Political Order. Political Science, 59(1), pp.45-56.

Carothers, T. and de Gramont, D. (2014). Problem-Driven Political Economy Analysis: The World Bank’s Experience edited by VerenaFritz, BrianLevy, and RachelOrt, eds. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2014. 289 pp. $29.95 (paper). Governance, 27(3), pp.534- 536.

Evans, P. (2004). Development as institutional change: The pitfalls of monocropping and the potentials of deliberation. Studies in Comparative International Development, 38(4), pp.30- 52.



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