Why political settlements matter: a response to Mick Moore

5 October 2012
Articles and blogs

How useful is the concept of political settlement? Not very, according to a recent post by Mick Moore over on the Institute of Development Studies’ Governance and Development blog. Taking particular issue with the lack of consensus regarding definition, Mick questions the legitimacy of the concept, closing with a somewhat pessimistic evaluation of its added value.

To be sure, definitions of political settlement abound, and while many are simply variants revolving around a core theme, others are most certainly competing. To quickly caricature what I see as the biggest ‘battle’ in this war of definitions: political settlement as arrangement of political power vs. political settlement as outcome of a peace process. In these circumstances, confusion is inevitable.

But I disagree with Mick in his assessment of how far the concept of political settlement takes us. As documented by DFID’s Will Evans, recent years have seen the development of a sophisticated understanding of what political settlements are about, shifting from a narrow focus on ‘bargains’ and ‘pacts’ between elites to a broader consideration of the way in which organisational and political power is organised, maintained and exercised (who is included, what are the conditions that determine in/exclusion?). And, despite the multiplicity of definitions, Will identifies a number of ‘common points’, including:

  • Elites and elite bargains are central, but political settlements extend further than this, shaped as they are by state-society interactions
  • Political settlements are subject to change over time
  • Peace settlements and political settlements are not the same (in other words, political settlement does not = outcome of a peace process…end of that particular battle, then?). However, neither are they mutually exclusive: as highlighted more recently by Bruce Jones and colleagues, political settlements might best be viewed as a longer running process punctuated by discrete events, such as peace agreements or power-sharing deals (which in turn provide windows of opportunity to reshape the existing political settlement).

This brief summary far from resolves our definitional dispute…but it does get us somewhere. In fact, it gets us three places.

First, it makes us realise that although the idea of a political settlement might give the impression of something intrinsically ‘good’ – of something ‘warm’ and ‘welcoming’ we would like to achieve – ascribing the concept with a normative value in this way misses the point. Rather, a number of different types of political settlements exist, ranging from imposed to inclusive and from engineered to entrenched, and varying considerably in strength and stability. Understanding the nature and logics of different political settlements is what helps us make sense of how power is organised and work out why some things fail and others succeed – arguably the core purpose of political economy analysis.

Second, it compels us to remember (or accept) that politics and power are fundamental to understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of development – and that what happens at the political ‘centre’ really does matter for development outcomes. There is an increasing literature, for example, highlighting the importance of political settlements in shaping patterns and processes of economic growth, tax capacity, state responsiveness, access to justice, and, as researchers from ODI’s Politics and Governance programme have shown, state capacity to respond to external shocks,

And third, the notion of political settlement sketched out above is consistent withnew lines of thinking about the complexity and diversity of political landscapes across geography and over time. As Mick himself argued in a separate post earlier this year, ‘we are beginning to understand that patterns of political authority are much more complex and differentiated [than previously thought]’, and the ways in which we subsequently frame political authority are becoming increasingly less state-centric. Indeed, one of the main findings to have emerged from six years of research at the Crisis States Research Centre is that states should be viewed not as formal public authorities operating around a set of liberal democratic and free market principles, but as messier political settlements embodying a set of power relations – a perspective which helps analysts and policy makers shake off a long preoccupation with Max Weber-influenced concepts and practices.

Building on this, it is clear that a focus on political settlements helps make visible various dimensions of governance beyond ‘ideal typical’ visions of the state. For example, Mushtaq Khan has highlighted the relationship between political settlements and informal governance, outlining the role of socially embedded codes and norms in determining distributions of power, and Tom Parks and William Cole of The Asia Foundation show how struggles for local control in subnational regions can be understood through the lens of ‘secondary political settlements’. These are all important points of added value, not mentioned in Mick’s post.

The main point to make here is that current definitional discrepancies should be no reason for us to turn our backs on what appears to be an extremely useful concept. ‘Institutions’ are notoriously difficult to pin down, for example, yet we all talk about them and all agree that they’re fairly central to understanding social and economic change. The literature on political settlements is growing, and has already begun to help us make sense of development successes and failures; if a bit of discursive and conceptual spring cleaning is part of what’s in order, then let’s drop the pessimism and get to work.