Which Forms of State Capacity Matter Most?

Our findings thus chime with perhaps the most consistent message to come from the growing literature on the politics of development over the past decades, which has centred on the centrality of state capacity and elite commitment in securing inclusive development outcomes. High levels of state capacity have been a central feature in all successful cases of long-run development witnessed in the post-Second-World-War era, across all domains of development. In terms of economic growth, the initial findings of the developmental-states literature on this have been further strengthened by the rise of new economic powers, all of which have involved a central role for a capable, committed, and credible state (World Bank 2008; also Vu 2007). In terms of redistribution, 'the state remains the only entity with the legitimacy and capacity to capture and redirect the wealth that society produces' (Sandbrook et al. 2007, p. 253), including through social provisioning (Leftwich 2008; Walton 2010). Finally, it has also become clearer that the state also closely shapes the possibilities for political inclusion and empowerment amongst citizens (Houtzager and Moore 2003; IDS 2010). Given that states can be highly capable without necessarily being committed to development, the commitment of political elites to delivering development has also been identified as a critical element of the politics of what works (Booth 2011d; Hossain 2005; Leftwich 1994; Vu 2007).[1]

Our findings largely concur with these conclusions, and, in linking this to the underlying role of politics and power relations through the political-settlements perspective, starts to suggest how the conditions within which developmental forms of state capacity and commitment might emerge, and to reveal the specific types and forms of capacity and commitment that matter. Drawing on vom Hau's earlier (2012) work, Singh and vom Hau define state capacity as 'the ability of states to apply and implement policy choices within the territorial boundaries they claim to govern', and comprises three distinct, but interrelated dimensions: the state's embeddedness with non-state actors; the organizational competence of state agencies; and the territorial reach of state institutions (vom Hau 2012). This approach goes beyond standard Weberian approaches and situates the state as a more relational phenomenon that is embedded within the broader society, albeit with varying degrees of autonomy (Evans 1995). Several of our contributors identify one or more of these dimensions as critical. For example, and in terms of the politics of accumulation, the capacity of the state to govern its relationships with capital (both national and transnational) in the national interests is critical, both in general (Sen) and in the specific case of natural resources (Bebbington, Mohan). The relational dimension of state capacity also shapes the politics of social provisioning, particularly concerning the depth and extent of relationships between civil and political society (Mcloughlin, echoing Evans 2010). In terms of the politics of recognition, Nazneen and Mahmud argue that 'the state remains the critical institution for the promotion of women's rights and gender justice in the contexts of poverty, global financial flows, and rising religious fundamentalism'. Again, the state's relational capacities are essential here, in terms of the links between political actors, key bureaucrats, and women's movements.

  • [1] For example, Vu's seminal (2007) comparative study of developmental states in Asia distinguishes between the 'structure' of the state and state-society relations that is required togenerate the capacity to deliver development and the 'role' that elites chose to play in committing to this.
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