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Breaking Heads over Questions of Change

The approach is commendable, but we might ask whether the tools presented would be used by those elites that are in the position to use them effectively

27-08-2014

Weijer, F D; "Breaking Heads Over Questions of Change"; European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), 2014.

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In his article – and the book upon which it is based – Seth Kaplan aims to look at the power dynamics and the role of elites and then seeks ways to make the latter work more for the benefit of their countries and populations. He starts from the double premise that 1. governments do not work well and are easily corrupted or hijacked by powerful interests, and 2. societies are divided into many different identity groups. In his theory, these factors combine to create a governing system that inevitably produces inequitable social relationships and self-interested politics that work against the interests of the weak and deprived. 

These premises can of course be criticized. Societies are never naturally divided, but fault lines are created and instrumentalized by political actors. Equally,  governments are never monolithic nor are all individuals within them fully self-centred. Still, even if these are only half-truths, the conclusion that these assumptions change the way you analyze problems is correct. And this is the strength of the argument put forward in Kaplan’s  article. He takes reality as a starting point and finds the openings, the margins for manoeuvre, and the potential points of leverage that change actors may have. He looks not at what the ideal would look like (fair and free elections leading to an inclusive government), but at what some of the mechanisms are that could lead to an improved – more inclusive, more pro-poor – situation.

This way of thinking is in line with political economy thinking, like the work by David Booth and others, and also with the work conducted by the Leadership for Development program and, more broadly, the Thinking and Working Politically community. It promotes a way of thinking that is more conscious of ‘how change comes about’ instead of ‘what change should look like’. Furthermore, Kaplan aims to take this even further by presenting concrete ideas on what levers may exist to entice such changes to come about.

But this is where the weakness of the article starts to emerge. It leaves us wondering who the audience of this book exactly is. Who are these recommendations intended for? Who has access to these levers and why would they use them? Kaplan states that ‘enlightened individuals’ within countries seeking to encourage more inclusive behaviour from elites are not without their own weapons to advance their agenda. At a later stage he points out the steps that could be taken by ‘members of the elite who want to nurture more inclusive and development-oriented states’. And further on he asks how ‘business, community and religious leaders’ can persuade political leaders to act more inclusively, wondering how ‘pro-reform forces’ can use their power to change the incentives of those who can bring about change.

Read more of this article at the original post in The Broker 

Photo courtesy of UNAMID

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