Like it or not: coercive power is essential to development

By Erwin van Veen, Lead Levant Research Programme, Senior Research Fellow, Conflict Research Unit at Clingendael

Understanding the political economy of coercion is essential to achieving developmental gains in countries at the lower end of stability and institutional performance. Surprisingly, this matter rarely features on the development agenda, which means the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals continues to suffer in such countries.

If national development is defined as the long-term, collective pursuit of the highest level of wellbeing for the greatest number of citizens, it is a deeply political and highly contested process by default. That is in part because all these components are subject to varying definitions. What is the collective? What is wellbeing? Who is a citizen and what are their rights? Different countries offer starkly different answers to such questions. But beyond definitions, there are also more commonplace reasons for development being such a political undertaking.

The political nature of development

To begin with, choices about the allocation of public resources inevitably create winners and losers in the short-term because such resources are scarce and distributed according to existing power relations. While winners are grateful, losers mobilise, advocate and protest in developed and developing countries alike. For example, the Dutch government’s decision to push the agricultural sector to increase its contribution to lowering emissions of harmful nitrogen triggered the formation of the ‘Farmers Defence Force’. This is not a well-armed militia as the name suggests, but an aggressively operating farmer’s advocacy collective.

Moreover, political and economic models frame the nature and boundaries of development policies. Political models can range from autocracy to liberal democracy and economic models from import-substitution to unfettered market capitalism. Such models are often a matter of choice by the few, hardly ever monolithic or uncontested and yet shape the nature of the entire polity. Developmental policies follow from the ideological preferences of such models but will inevitably be contested in turn.

Finally, development is about identity. The national communities – often ‘imagined’ – that are the subject of development can be created through assimilation, gradual incorporation (see e.g. ‘Turning peasants into Frenchmen’ that examines the power expansion of the French state) or organized co-existence (e.g. a peaceful mosaic of identities as in Canada). More or less inclusivity, as well as more or less accommodation of multiple identities, can generate vastly different developmental results, ranging from greater polarisation and more exclusion to entrenchment of inequality or even radical reform.

How solid are the handrails of political contestation?

In other words, developmental processes are politically contested because the material, ideological and identity stakes are high. The outcomes are related to the power bases and interests of social groups and individuals that both shape and experience developmental trajectories. The energies and passions thus engendered are ideally channelled peacefully through functional, trusted and mature procedures, rules and institutions that are, ultimately, enforceable by coercive means. But even in this ideal scenario, resistance of ruling elites against developmental change not to their benefit is strong and not easily overcome.

In countries at the lower end of stability and institutional performance, procedures, rules and institutions for the management of political contestation are often dysfunctional, not trusted or not enforceable – due to pre-existing conditions that range from histories of colony or empire to contemporary authoritarianism and persistent cycles of conflict. In such environments, violence is a more common method to settle political arguments because it is easy to mobilise and because there are fewer functional alternative dispute resolution channels.

Violence as the coin of the realm

Historical records suggest that violence has been a key component of developmental processes everywhere. The simple explanation is that a certain concentration of coercive power is necessary to bring initial development about. Where this is absent, political contestation will more readily be resolved by threat or means of violence, power brokers will avoid striking developmental compromises and maintain existing privileges, and/or political compromises on development choices will be more easily reversed during implementation. Development is possible without democracy but not without a sufficient consolidation of coercive power.

Problematically, the process of accumulating power to achieve a sufficient concentration is often violent as well since it triggers immediate resistance from those who (perceive to) stand to lose from the foreseen changes. Turning a fragmented and highly competitive distribution of coercive capabilities (characteristic of many protracted civil wars such as Syria, Somalia or the DR Congo) into a more oligarchic distribution (which we can study in Iraq, Afghanistan or South Sudan) and then into a monopoly is therefore a slow, arduous and violent journey under the best of circumstances. Once an adequate concentration of coercive power has been achieved, there is no guarantee it will be used for developmental purposes. Much will depend on how the concentration came about, its sources of legitimacy and the nature as well as the constraints of the elite(s) in charge of it. Regression is entirely possible and happens with some regularity.

For the current argument, it suffices to accept that development actors must understand the political economy of coercion and the violence resulting from this if they are to deliver on developmental objectives (such as the Sustainable Development Goals). This is especially the case in countries at the lower end of stability and institutional performance where much of today’s poverty resides. It does not follow that development actors should support such processes of coercive power accumulation – although there is a paradox here in the sense that the diplomats, soldiers and spies of the same nations often do play a role.

A recent World Bank hosted panel (part of the 2020 Fragility Forum) about the political economy of security sector reform offered another warning that problems of coercion and violence are not necessarily accepted in the development community as fundamentally developmental questions. If one accepts that this is the case based on the argument outlined above, how can the issue be elevated on the developmental agenda?

First, much more insight is needed into the role of coercion and violence in developmental processes. For example, it bears examination whether certain types of coercion, or even particular processes of accumulation of coercive power, are more conducive to development than others? Under what conditions? Second, it would be wise to ensure that it is clear for each dollar of the USD 153 billion spent in official development aid (ODA, 2019) in countries at the lower end of stability and institutional performance how it impacts the political economy of coercion. Just as humanitarian aid during conflict will inevitably serve political functions on the receiving end, so will development aid in situations of instability and institutional weakness.

As Grenier summarised Orwell: ‘People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ If this is so, we had better understand what motivates these rough men, what they do during daytime and how they are organised.