Discordant Development – Can Progress Increase Instability?

by | Jan 16, 2013

Discordant development, imbalanced development, unequal development

Samuel Huntington argued in his 1968 classic Political Order in Changing Societies that rapid development could be highly destabilizing:

Social and economic change—urbanization, increase in literacy and education, industrialization, mass media expansion—extend political consciousness, multiply political demands, broaden political participation. These changes undermine traditional sources of political authority and traditional political institutions; they enormously complicate the problems of creating new bases of political association and new political institutions combining legitimacy and effectiveness. The rates of social mobilization and the expansion of political organization are high; the rates of political organization and institutionalization are low. The result is political instability and disorder. The primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change.

Richard Joseph, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Professor at Northwestern University, discusses a similar point in a recent article on Africa. In it, he introduces the very useful phrase “discordant development,” defining it as:

More than just “unequal development,” but rather how deepening inequalities and rapid progress juxtaposed with group distress can generate uncertainty and violent conflict.

This is a common problem in fragile states. One area moves forward while another area does not — or worse. And because countries are weakly unified, such development is highly discordant, increasing instability by how it increases the exclusion — and feelings of exclusion — of certain groups.

This is what happened to a certain extent in Mali, which had experienced relatively strong growth for almost two decades before it was sundered. It is what is happening in Nigeria, where the south has pockets of rapid development while the north and many other parts of the country stagnate. It has happened in Kenya, Uganda, and Angola. It was one of the causes of conflict in Côte d’Ivoire.

Other parts of the world have also experienced discordant development, though in less stark terms. States such as Thailand, for instance, have experienced rapid but uneven development that created cleavages between different parts of the country that political institutions have found hard to absorb at times. Those that feel left behind rebel against a system that seems disenfranchising (even when it has significantly improved their lot). The Arab Spring was to some extent a product of the frustrations created by policies and institutions that yielded large advances for a small number of people while leaving most of a population relatively worse off. Development accompanied by growing inequities and cultural divisions between elites and the mass of the population eventually exploded.

Africa has it worse than anywhere else because its states are the most artificial and its population geography the most divisive. As Huntington also pointed out,

The more complex and heterogeneous the society . . . the more the achievement and maintenance of political community become dependent upon the workings of political institutions. . . . In a society lacking political community . . . loyalties to the primordial social and economic groupings—family, clan, village, tribe, religion, social class—compete with and often supersede loyalty to the broader institutions of public authority.

Joseph blames two problems:

The first is the African jigsaw bequeathed by the colonial carve-up of the continent. Governments located in the capitals of vast countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan . . . have never projected power over their extensive domains. . . .

[The second is the] discordance [that] has been fostered by state capture in countries that are ethnically, linguistically and religiously plural. New discoveries of exploitable oil, gas, coal and other minerals are increasing the stakes of state capture and prebendalism, i.e., government officials using state offices as prebends to serve themselves, their cronies and kinfolk but not the public.

He is right to argue that:

No African country will achieve sustainable progress while significant sub-groups of its population regress.

Of course, there is no easy solution to this problem, especially given the fact that geography and infrastructure and state capacity structurally advantage certain areas and groups over others.

In some cases, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the only option may be partition, a policy choice that both Congolese elites and the international community have avoided (up to now at least). Joseph is right to argue that the status quo may not be sustainable:

African regional and continental organizations should take up an issue that is usually verboten: Are some post-colonial territories simply ungovernable? Can all of the massive DRC ever be governed from Kinshasa in its extreme southwest? J. Peter Pham (2012) advocates, as Herbst and others have long done, that the DRC should be subdivided into more viable states that can enhance security and promote development. In an era of renewed growth in Africa, many Congolese are condemned to lives of extreme deprivation.

But his other recommendations in this short article are rather perfunctory. Calls to enhance the functioning of democracy, strengthen civil society, and promote affirmative action do not begin to address the complex challenges here.

Harmonious development requires an extra effort at every stage to ensure no identity group or region is excluded from gains. In some cases, this may require growing slower but more inclusively instead of risking the destabilizing effects of rapid growth that excludes large parts of a population. This is especially true when that strong growth is being produced by natural resource enclaves that enrich very few people.

Enlightened leaders need to ensure that growth builds social cohesion, not undermines it; that progress is backed by a strengthening of institutions; that policies and infrastructure investments reduce geographical disadvantages and social exclusion; and that the design of government and democracy take into account the divided nature of populations and the disadvantages some areas are naturally going to have. Structural problems require structural solutions that go well beyond the normal portfolio of ideas typically promoted by the development community.


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    Seth Kaplan is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He teaches, writes, and consults on issues related to fragile states, governance, and development. He is the author of Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (Praeger Security International, 2008) and Betrayed: Politics, Power, and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). A Wharton MBA and Palmer scholar, Seth has worked for several large multinationals and founded four companies. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.

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