Elite Incentives



In most fragile states, power is concentrated in the hands of small elites, most of whom usually display little concern for the wider society. Ordinary citizens typically have little or no control over the state, and the state itself is usually limited in its ability to make or implement policy.

In such places, individuals face a political and economic calculus very different from that encountered by their peers in the rich world. The presence of a weak government incapable of enforcing the rule of law and easily co-opted by wealthy and powerful forces creates a difficult environment for progressive-minded individuals, forcing them to make uncomfortable choices.

Government officials, for instance, who break the law can reap considerable rewards without facing significant risks. Corruption is so ubiquitous that that an individual who refuses to participate in it may be abiding by the letter of the law but is certainly flouting convention. That person may even end up antagonizing relatives, friends, superiors—everyone, indeed, who stands to benefit from the corrupt status quo. Even powerful individuals risk being ostracized, fired, or worse if they seek to replace a corrupt system with a meritocracy.

On a broader level, everyone from warlords to corrupt businessmen and ethnic and religious leaders may stand in the way of leaders hoping to forge a national, regional, or local consensus behind an inclusive, development-oriented state building agenda. Some will have legitimate concerns, while many will just worry about their own positions, interests, and profits.

Overcoming these spoilers is not easy, and may not always be possible in the short term. Even in the long term, it may require Machiavellian strategizing and maneuvering to co-opt, isolate, circumscribe, or overthrow them. Champions of reform will have to win over powerful individuals and societal groups that have previously pursued narrow private interests and persuade them to join a broad coalition working to nurture growth and spread its benefits more widely.

Different circumstances will call for different strategies to tackle opponents of reform. Where a state is relatively robust, the pro-reform coalition may be able to negotiate with opponents to accept a pro-growth deal. Offering compensation, whether financial or in some other form, may help to bring potential spoilers on board. Various forms of popular pressure—from taxpayer protests to campaigns by religious coalitions—may also overcome elite resistance to change. But where the state is weak and society is fragmented into a series of patronage networks, the pro-reform group may have to be much more creative if they are to co-opt powerful forces. The least worst option in some countries might be to integrate these powerful actors and their support networks into some form of governing arrangement. A deal to buy the support of an important power broker may initially limit the scope of reform. But if that deal increases economic opportunity (by decreasing political uncertainty), it will gradually lead to a more equitable and inclusive environment.


For more information, see:

The Price of Peace

By Alex de Waal


Developmental Patrimonialism?

By Tim Kelsall and David Booth


We Have a Consensus: Explaining Political Support for Market Reforms in Latin America

By Leslie Elliott Armijo and Philippe Faucher


The Politics of Poverty: Elites, Citizens, and States

By the Department for International Development (DFID)


Politics and Growth

By Gareth Williams, Alex Duncan, Pierre Landell-Mills, and Sue Unsworth


Developmental States, Effective States and Poverty Reduction: The Primacy of Politics

By Adrian Leftwich


An Upside View of Governance

By Sue Unsworth


The Rise of “State-Nations

Alfred Stepan, Juan J. Linz, and Yogendra Yadav


What Drives States to Support the Development of Productive Sectors? Strategies Ruling Elites Pursue for Political Survival and their Policy Implications

By Lindsay Whitfield and Ole Therkildsen


Do Inclusive Elite Bargains Matter? A Research Framework for Understanding the Causes of Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Stefan Lindemann


Rethinking the Relationship between Neo-patrimonialism and Economic Development in Africa

By Tim Kelsall