Social Affairs

How bad developmental state ruins good governance

The economy of a developmental state may grow at unprecedented pace but it often ruins democracy and good governance 


Taye Negussie (PhD)

Ordinarily, we think of a developmental state merely as a state that intervenes in the working of the market at instances of ‘market malfunctioning’. But, is that all what is meant by the term ‘developmental state’? Most importantly, what is the relationship like between the working of a developmental state and the realization of the purpose and objective of good governance?

In today’s world of political-economic systems we can identify at least three major variants of states with varied degrees of taste to intervening in the functioning of the social order. These are:  the Welfare State Model, the Keynesian Interventionist State Model, and the East-Asian Developmental State Model.

The first two alternatives of interventionist state models are largely associated with the Western political-economic system. While the Welfare State Model is overwhelmingly concerned with meeting the social needs of citizens, the Keynesian Interventionist State is reputed to be a state with the gut of intervening in the functioning of the market when the economy goes into ‘bad shape’ with the intent of bringing it back to a state of ‘normalcy’.

On the other hand, the East-Asian Developmental State Model, especially the Chinese and the Singaporean prototype, could be conceived as a socio-economic and political system which encompasses a much wider sphere of peoples’ social, economic and political lives.

Developmental state, at least as it is practiced in East-Asia, often takes on a massive form of governance whereby the ruling political party and the bureaucratic organ single-handedly monopolize the role of originating, legislating, executing and overseeing the implementation of all public policies and statutes. This essentially frees the state from the reins of social control and renders it unaccountable to the larger public.

In the case of communist states, the tendency to non-participatory governance seems to emanate largely from a political ideology grounded in the principle of ‘democratic centralism’, which by nature limits democracy only to the few ruling elites.

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The assumption of the developmental state is that the ruling party and the state bureaucracy could fairly and fully represent the voices, needs and demands of the public at large – a declaration of self-appointed representation. The source of this fantasy stems from a given government’s absolute arrogant attitude that treats the society as the ‘ignorant masses’.

Of course, there is no denying that the track record of developmental state is complete with unprecedented pace of economic growth. However, economic growth alone without the essential elements of good governance can never be considered as true development.

My argument in this piece is that by imposing the will of the government on the people – placing government before the people – the policy and practice of a developmental state undermines the intent and purpose of good governance, which is mainly understood in the sense of a genuinely functioning democracy which not only upholds rhetorically but also makes effective use of the principles of an all-embracing, compassionate, socially-sensitive, flexible, transparent and accountable governance. Nonetheless, by dictating the society what, how, where and when to do things, the very logic of developmental state stands in the way of the nature and purpose of good governance.

As a matter of fact, the notion of the developmental state model first and foremost puts some fundamentals such as deeply committed nationalism, uniformity, and homogeneity which antagonize, at least in the latter cases, with the principal symptom of democracy and good governance – diversity, heterogeneity, pluralism and accommodative of  dissenting views.

Crowding out public sphere

The idea of public sphere designates the sphere of social life where public opinion is formed. It employs, among others, a free media and autonomous civic groups as a form of representation and the medium of public discussions to engage in free debate and exchange of opinions concerning general rules that govern social, economic and political matters.

But in an attempt to carry out a totalitarian and uni-modal socio-economic policy and statutes, the developmental state is bound to narrow down the democratic space open to the larger public. It does so mainly by diminishing the public sphere in the socio-economic and political landscape.

Moreover, the public sphere serves as a forum whereby the government submits public policies before the tribunal of public opinion. It is a means by which the society directs criticisms and exerts control over the working of the government.

However, as the practical experiences of some developmental states clearly show by manipulating public forum and reproducing some loyal and submissive pro-state civic groups the state unduly suffocates and bureaucratizes the public sphere. Certainly, any type of manipulation of public forum and mingling in the internal affairs of civic groups dampens the confidence and eventually eliminates the capacity of the public sphere to exercise social and political power.

To make matters worse those supposedly neutral public institutions which symbolize the embodiment of ‘public power’ such as the police, the military and the judiciary turn out to be the privatized sphere of developmental state authorities.

Unsurprisingly, with absolute control and subjugation of the society, every conceivable public policies and statutes become a matter of back door dealings and compromises among the ruling political elites and government functionaries.  But, at the same time they have to secure at least some semblance of legitimacy through the deployment of a staged form of publicity. More often than not the activities of public communication take the highest possible priority in the functioning of the governments of developmental states.

By dominating and assuming the roles of various sections of society, repressing the voices of citizens, and eliminating the “third estate”, i.e. the public sphere, the developmental state model inadvertently grants the government a license of dictatorship via non-responsive, non-transparent, and unaccountable totalitarian authority which is essentially an exact opposite to the spirit and essence of good governance.

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