When sub-Saharan African government institutions do not function as expected by international aid agencies, they are often labelled dysfunctional. This Development Policy Review article explains the ‘logic’ behind neopatrimonial practices. Donors must begin to act politically – to confront directly the political logic that undermines economic development and democratic consolidation.
In neopatrimonial states, power lies outside formal institutions and in the hands of ‘big men’, who follow a logic of personal interest rather than national betterment. These big men are linked to ‘informal’ networks that connect MPs, chiefs, party officials, and government bureaucrats to villagers. Corruption is rampant. The overarching logic is to gain and retain power at all costs. The idea of democracy is anathema if this results in the big man and his associates being ousted.
Many characteristics of African states appear logical when viewed through a neopatrimonial lens:
- African countries are stuck at this stage of political development because they remain at a pre-capitalist stage of economic development. Class interests have not united individuals horizontally and broken down vertical networks and communities remain highly reliant on patrons.
- Because of poor economic performance, state resources are the main source of income in many African countries. Thus, rulers and their dependants have every reason to try to stay in power.
- Politicians understand that professionalising their bureaucracy will stimulate development, but they prevent this from occurring to avoid exposing clientelist networks. Neopatrimonial states have bureaucracies whose appointments are made according to tests of loyalty and which ineffectively account for public funds.
To foster development in neopatrimonial states, donors should tackle deep structural and systematic problems. Capacity constraints and policy weaknesses can only be addressed when states ‘get their politics right’. Donors should therefore focus on understanding and supporting the historical forces that can eventually lead even a poor performer to development. They can also consider whether their interventions will promote developmental characteristics. Donors must accept that aid can make matters worse by propping up non-developmental regimes, and that outsiders can do little to enforce change.
To promote incremental and positive change, however, aid agencies can:
- Start by understanding the informal and formal political processes of a country by using a political-economy analysis. They should share with the public the knowledge gained about the way neopatrimonial states function, starting with the intelligentsia, civil servants, NGOs and the media.
- Determine the causes of poor governance and state fragility and design development programmes to address them.
- Help the poor transform themselves into a civil society that demands services, state accountability and human rights. For example, donors could support adult literacy and higher education, not just primary education, to help people learn to co-ordinate and organise themselves.
- Support civil society organisations that monitor government spending and activities, including budgets, and that promote real participation in decision-making.
- Promote institutional change, especially the abolition of repressive institutions and laws that have remained on the books.
- Help increase Africans’ awareness of their own continental governance and aid superstructure, and the emerging regulatory environment.