OPINION: Political Underdevelopment: What Causes Bad Governance?


What are the causes of bad governance? Is political underdevelopment largely due to the ways in which interactions with the ‘metropolitan countries’ have shaped, and continue to shape, poor countries? This paper from the Institute of Development Studies argues that ‘bad governance’ is made, not born, and ‘we’ (in the North) play a part in creating and maintaining it.

The political underdevelopment that is characteristic of much of the ‘South’ largely results from the ways in which states have been created and political authority shaped through interactions with the wealthier ‘core’ countries in the context of global economic and political systems. Political underdevelopment stems, to a large degree, from low levels of dependence of state elites on their own citizens. Poor world states are relatively homogenous in their formal organisational characteristics. The heterogeneity in the actual functioning of states stems largely from wide differences in patterns of state-society relations.

The degree of dependence of states on citizens is the most significant element in this pattern. Low levels of dependence of states on citizens are found in three main types of circumstances. These circumstances overlap a great deal in practice, but are best treated as separate for analytical purposes:
  • Where state elites enjoy strong external financial and/or military support even when they are in conflict with many of their own citizens.
  • Where states are dependent on ‘unearned income’. ‘Earned income’ is when the state has to put in organisational and political effort in working with citizens to get its money. Unearned income generally comes from mineral revenues or overseas aid.
  • Where state elites, and sometimes their challengers, have abundant resources and scope to purchase supportive military force that can be used against their own citizens.
  • In some countries it has been relatively easy in recent decades to exercise a kind of state power by purchasing military force with the proceeds of sales of valuable commodities on global markets.


The low dependence of poor-world states on their own citizens, in any of these forms, is possible only because of the great political and economic inequalities between states at the global level. Poor-world states have been created and shaped through interactions with the wealthier and more powerful ‘core’ countries. 

Several evident policy implications arise from this:
  • Poor countries need to tax themselves more. There is no convincing evidence that, on a country by country basis, increases in aid levels actually reduce the effective tax effort.
  • However, it is clear that in aggregate governments of poor countries reap an unusually low proportion of GNP in the form of taxes.
  • Doing something about that would also provide the (reliable) resources they need to tackle poverty and deprivation.
  • There is a need for more effective restrictions on international arms sales and on international purchases of commodities from ‘tainted’ sources.
  • We should be less concerned with manipulating state institutions of poor countries in the name of ‘good governance’, and put more effort into creating the environmental conditions that will encourage the emergence of more productive state-society relations.
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