A response to Nic Cheeseman on authoritarian aid

The Authoritarian Aid Debate
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Nic Cheeseman has written an interesting article about the current crisis in Ethiopia and its implications for development funding. It contains some strong points but like Solomon Baraka Sudi, I think there are others that can be challenged. Without getting into the details of the Ethiopian case, on which I am not an expert, I want in this contribution to take issue with Nic’s characterisation of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, of which I was a part, his contention that authoritarian development is unsustainable in Africa, and the assumed implications for policymakers. My most important point, however, is that the development policy community should look beyond the democracy-autocracy dichotomy, and think instead about how human welfare can be maximised in context.

The Africa Power and Politics Programme

Nic singles out ODI’s Africa Power and Politics Programme (2007-2012) as an example of policy research that has, ‘played an important role in the rise of authoritarian development’ providing an ‘intellectual foundation for investing in countries that, on the basis of their human rights records, the EU and the UK  might have been expected to avoid’.

Whether this flatters or demonises the APPP depends on one’s point of view. In reality, the UK government had been giving large sums of aid to Rwanda and Ethiopia years before APPP research begun. Moreover, it had stopped giving budget support to Ethiopia in the mid-2000s after government shooting of peaceful demonstrators, though it continued with project aid and after a short while began to provide sub-national budget support. The UK and other donors also withheld aid to Rwanda in 2012 following revelations about its support for rebels in DRC. The suggestion that the APPP research gave the UK government cover to blindly give large sums of aid to Ethiopia and Rwanda, let alone other authoritarian countries, is misleading.

Further, as Nic to some degree acknowledges, the APPP did not advocate indiscriminate support for authoritarianism and nor was it unequivocally celebratory of what we called developmental patrimonial regimes in Africa. For example, in our 2013 book, we pointed to some uncertainty around whether the Ethiopian experiment could survive Meles’ succession. I followed this up with work on the succession trap, whether developmental patrimonialism was a dead end, and the conditions under which high growth autocracies could become high growth democracies. We were also not oblivious to the issue of human rights. On the last page of our 2013 book, for example, we wrote:

While it may be unrealistic to think that a vibrant multiparty democracy could even survive in the political contexts of Ethiopia or Rwanda, let alone oversee an equivalent level of development, it is less far fetched to think that those states could be governed with somewhat less repression than they currently employ, and yet still achieve most of their economic goals. The ambition should be progress on all types of rights [ie economic, social and civil], not necessarily equally or evenly, but without one taking precedence to the complete exclusion of the other.

Political and economic development

Recent ‘big books’ in political science, for example North et al’s Violence and Social Orders, Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay and Acemoglu and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor, provide substance to the idea that although political and economic development are interrelated, they do not always develop along parallel tracks, and the path to so-called ‘open and inclusive’ societies is a difficult and uncertain one. Fukuyama in particular invites us to think of political development as being about more than just democracy and human rights. It comprises state capacity, rule of law, and political accountability. These three dimensions of political development have progressed at different rates in different societies; very rarely have they all gone together. And, as Acemoglu and Robinson explain, it is far from inevitable that they will eventually combine.

Nic believes that Western policymakers should provide preferential treatment to democracies because democracy is valuable in its own right. Other things being equal I would agree. The problem is that a genuine democracy will not take root unless there is a sufficient balance of powerful groups in favour of it. In some countries, at some critical junctures, Western donors may be able to tip the balance in democracy’s favour. Sierra Leone in the 2000s springs to mind. But in other cases, even a massive injection of resources will not generate particularly desirable results, as shown by Western misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the choice here is not between supporting a well-functioning democracy and a human rights abusing alternative, but a harder one of whether to support some of kind of imperfect, less than democratic regime, or leave the country to its own devices.

And just because democracy is not advancing, it does not mean that other dimensions of political development are also stagnating. Less democratic regimes might oversee considerable progress on building state capacity and rule by, or of, law. Where, as in Rwanda and Ethiopia, there appears genuine elite commitment to this, it seems conscionable to support it, while continuing to advocate for human rights.

Developmental patrimonialism

Nic also believes that the claims for ‘developmental patrimonialism’ are overblown, that the Rwandan case is non-replicable, and also that developmental patrimonialism is probably unsustainable in African conditions. As such, donors should not use developmental patrimonial potential as a justification for funding authoritarian regimes.

On the first point, it seems plausible to me that development statistics are more vulnerable to manipulation in authoritarian regimes than democracies and that this is a source of genuine concern. At the same time, there is a large body of not just statistical evidence that the Ethiopian and Rwandan regimes have made impressive strides in infrastructure, economic and human development. Policymakers need to weigh a variety of sources of evidence before determining whether and how to support a given regime, or indeed authoritarian regimes in general.

On the second point, no-one in their right minds would want to replicate the genocidal conditions that gave birth to the Rwandan regime, just as they would not want to replicate the fire-bombing and nuclear attacks that cleared the way for democratisation in post-war Germany and Japan. Yet it is conceivable that incipient developmental states or viable liberal democracies can sometimes emerge in less extreme circumstances, and policymakers need to be able to choose which route appears most viable in the context. Where a polity appears to be on a knife-edge, I agree that democracy is generally the preferable option, though that is a personal preference.

On the third point, about sustainability, this seems to me to neglect the potentially enduring features of political development across regime transitions. All political settlements contain forces for equilibrium but also tensions that threaten to undermine them, especially when interacting with the external environment: it is not particularly surprising that Africa’s developmental patrimonial experiments have not continued ad infinitum. Nevertheless, some have survived for well over a decade, in which time real achievements have been made. For example, before Jerry Rawlings’ autocratic PNDC regime, Ghana had swung between periods of democracy, single-party and military rule, each with erratic economic performance. Over a twenty year period of constrained political competition, however, Rawlings was able to build some pockets of state capacity in the Finance Ministry and cocoa industry. Those pockets have served Ghana reasonably well following the country’s return to genuine multi-party democracy in 2002, and, although the country still faces problems when it comes to economic transformation, few people, including former members of APPP, would advocate a return to authoritarian rule.

Looking to the future

In sum, the matter of whether, how much, and in what way to support a regime, needs to be determined by more than its degree of democracy. Indeed, for some time, I and like-minded colleagues have been urging policy makers to look beyond the autocracy-democracy dichotomy. For example, in a 2014 paper for DLP I argued that we need to look instead at political settlements and how they promote or impede development and in what ways. I have continued this work with the ESID research programme, which categorises political settlements according to how broad their social foundation is and how concentrated their configuration of power: dimensions that cut across regime type. Each political settlement type has certain strengths when it comes to political and economic development and weaknesses too. Policymakers, insofar as they are able, need to leverage the strengths while trying to mitigate the weaknesses, facilitating or nudging states and societies in the direction of improved human well-being across a variety of dimensions and in light of plausible alternatives.


  1. Political settlements are a great concept, well done, Tim. However, you use Fukuyama incorrectly, in his book and his lectures he emphasises that countries need to make progress in state capacity, together with rule of law (NOT at all rule by law) and accountability otherwise thinks do not end well. In fact Fukuyama has a recent paper when he directly points out that Rwanda and Ethiopia are not feasible models (state works for the ruling party and not the country and the ruling party does not have formal bureaucratic processes like in China). https://cco.ndu.edu/BCWWO/Article/980793/4-the-march-is-not-linear-big-party-politics-and-the-decline-of-democracy-world/

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