Smart problem-solving and Selma-style campaign tactics

selmaDavid Booth of the Overseas Development Institute wrote an extensive set of comments on the democracy series (on the People, Spaces Deliberation site which re-published the posts; link below). I thought it useful to re-publish his comments (plus my response) here.


“Brian, I hope many of your readers will follow you in foreswearing the seductive utopianism of transformative democratic change. Incremental progress – small steps forward in political, economic and social spheres that reinforce one another and become cumulative – is as good as it gets in the real world. And it’s well worth having. Big-bang democratisation has never happened in history. The illusion that it can happen (implying, among other things, that it is invariably a good idea to overturn dictatorships) has become a major force for bad in the world, especially when it feeds the arrogance of global power in areas like the Middle East.

But as well as agreeing, let me challenge you to go further, in two ways. First, I think we need to respond to those who are impatient for change by providing an alternative vision of how incremental progress can be maximised and retrogressions avoided. I don’t think ‘sustaining momentum’ quite provides that. And I don’t think anybody is going to be terribly excited by a vision of progress that is no more than democratic utopianism running at very slow speed.

So why not embrace vigorously that other theme of Dani Rodrik’s recent writing: the virtues of systematic problem-driven policy experimentation, the assumption of which is that there is no pre-written script of progress, whether economic or political; countries have to discover what works for them. And when they get the hang of this, as in China, the resulting change can be far from slow. Is there a good reason why this thinking would to economic reform but not to political development and democratisation?

Just before writing this I was watching the movie Selma on a plane, and I know Martin Luther King is a hero of yours. The film reminds us that democratic progress is partly about politically smart tactics, and those have to be learned; there are models but no textbook.

Second, one of the reasons the democratisation script is not pre-written is, obviously, that countries have very different ethno-regional and social structures. You will agree that one of the things young democracies in the developing world have handled particularly badly is ethnicity. I would suggest that unnatural nation-state structures inherited from colonialism combined with political constitutions that are leading examples of isomorphic mimicry – the opposite of context-sensitive problem solving – are behind a significant part of the poor rate of institutional improvement to which you draw attention.

So a major part of the agenda of experimentation and discovery around democratisation that I invite you to advocate needs to be about this. It needs to be about finding pathways and forms of politics and political institution-building that are capable of handling ethnic division in a constructive way – of taking the sting out of what Lonsdale calls ‘political tribalism’ and harnessing his ‘moral ethnicity’ to development.

Both of these challenges are difficult, for sure. But I suggest they may excite some of those who feel that people like you and me are offering a rather dismal alternative to democratic utopianism.”


“Brian, I am still catching up with your excellent democracy series. In this one, you do take the argument forward in some of the ways I was appealing for in my comment on the previous one! I think parts of the challenge remain, though. Some of your bulleted suggestions here do feel a bit like the standard utopia in slow motion. I think we can and should be putting more accent on smart problem-solving and Selma-style campaign tactics.”


David: Your comment on this and my earlier post has had me thinking hard….. It led me to make the suggestion, at a presentation at the OECD’s Development Advisory Committee, that we might consider replacing “good governance” with an agenda of “governance activism in service of inclusive democratic development“. I suggested  that this agenda might include:

  • Agricultural development — building the bargaining power of small farmers
  • Human development for all — bringing transparency & participation out of their technocratic shadows
  • Cities that work for all – including inclusive services; and clean city government
  • Natural resources justice — Who benefits? Who gets hurt?

Finally, here is a link to the “People, Spaces Deliberation” site.