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Understanding and Deploying the Political Settlement Framework in Africa

Summary and Keywords

Research using variants of political settlement analysis have gained prominence in scholarship on Africa. Political settlement research provides an analytical lens that takes the researcher beyond a narrow focus on formal institutions to examine how distributions of power among groups affect the way that institutions work. A political settlement can be defined as a combination of power and institutions that is mutually compatible and also sustainable in terms of economic and political viability. The main theoretical building blocks of the framework are institutions, power, and rents. Despite its burgeoning influence as an analytical approach, existing literature contains considerable differences in the core concepts and causal mechanisms described as constituting a political settlement framework. There are key differences within the literature between research that conceptualizes political settlement as action and political settlement conceptualized as process. In understanding political settlement as process, a political settlement is conceptualized as a stable political order that has not necessarily been planned or consciously willed by different social groups. The outcomes intended from the adoption of any particular set of institutions cannot be taken for granted. Groups that may appear powerful in terms of their formal political and economic positions in society may not be able to actually enforce compliance with formal and informal institutions they desire, leading to a much more complex relationship between institutions and paths of political and economic change. Approaches that understand political settlement as action emphasize the role of agreements made by powerful groups or elites. Forging a viable and inclusive political settlement is treated as a desirable policy outcome where institutions that generate inclusion, stop war, or reduce violent conflict can be purposefully established and enforced by elites. The two versions of the framework have been deployed to explore a range of different phenomena including economic change and industrialization, corruption, social policy, conflict, and state-building in a number of African countries. A key insight of the political settlement framework is that it provides many new insights into the variation between political economies on the continent. However, it is crucial that those seeking either to deploy or to critique the framework recognize the diverse way in which concepts and underlying causal processes have been defined. Such tensions within the framework can be important for driving research and thinking forward.

Keywords: institutions, political settlement, political economy, power, rent, violence, economic transformation, industrialization, redistribution, ideology, African politics

The Rise of Political Settlement Frameworks

Research using variants of political settlement analysis have gained prominence in scholarship on Africa across a range of topics, including economic change, industrial and social policy, corruption, state-building, conflict, and security. Political settlement research starts from the perspective that understanding the effect of institutions on political and economic processes requires an analytical lens that takes the researcher beyond the institutions themselves to examine “the balance of power between the classes and groups affected by that institution, that is, on the political settlement” (Khan, 1995, p. 77). A political settlement can be defined as “a combination of power and institutions that is mutually compatible and also sustainable in terms of economic and political viability” (Khan, 2010, p. 20). Khan’s original work on political settlements in South Asia propelled the term into the field of the political economy of development from the mid-1990s (Khan, 1995, 2000a, 2000b, 2004, 2010), and the framework has subsequently been adapted and deployed by many different research groups and individual scholars to undertake research on a range of African countries.

Although the study of African institutions and the operation of power is certainly not the sole preserve of political settlement analysis, these recent studies have provided quite novel insights into some long-standing questions about the role of conflict over rents, the importance of non-state actors, and the influence of clientelism in shaping paths of political stability and economic change. One of the important contributions of political settlements to the study of Africa is to precisely delineate differences between political settlements in African countries that result from an interaction between global capitalism and unique distributions of power at local, national, and regional levels that emerged from particular pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial histories.

The initial interest in the framework in the early 2000s came from the fact that it provided a sharp critique of the prevailing assumptions about the relationship between institutions and economic development that was encapsulated in the “good governance agenda.” This donor-led approach to reform tapped into existing political struggles for social justice on the continent but asserted a narrow claim about the economic advantage of adopting institutions that promoted the rule of law, a multi-party political system, low levels of corruption, transparency of the state, and limited restrictions on the private sector. Scholarly skepticism about this top-down institutional reform agenda came from a number of different perspectives (Abrahamsen, 2000; Grindle, 2010; Mkandawire, 2011). The contribution of the political settlement framework was to show that the economic outcome of these “good governance” institutions is actually highly variable and did not depend on the specific structure of institutions per se, but on the distribution of power in which they operated.

As the confidence in the good governance paradigm began to wane, donors started to give greater attention to the role of power and local political context beyond the formal institutions of the state. This shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach to institutional reform was also driven by the rise of the development-as-security agenda that emphasized the particular problems of “fragile states” and post-conflict reconstruction and development. Important changes within mainstream institutional approaches also occurred across the 2000s; notably a number of influential new institutional economists, such as North et al. (2009, 2012) as well as Acemoglu and Robinson (2008, 2013), turned their attention toward the role of power in determining the developmental outcomes of institutions. The appeal of the political settlement framework within this broader intellectual and policy context was that it provided a way of undertaking the complex task of studying the interaction between power and institutions and systematizing the outcomes of these interactions.

While the framework has gained significant traction, even a cursory scan of political settlement literature since the mid-2000s reveals considerable differences in the core concepts and causal mechanisms that are described as constituting a political settlement framework. This was partly the result of the fact that the concept was taken up by a number of large research centers that defined the framework in various ways, combining the basic units of analysis of power and institutions with a range of different theoretical schools and operationalizing the concept differently. Individual researchers have also contributed in distinct ways to the development of the framework outside these large-scale research centers (see, e.g., Behuria, 2016; Goodfellow, 2018; Gray, 2018; Gray & Whitfield, 2014; Whitfield 2018), and Khan’s original framing of political settlements has also evolved over time (see, e.g., Khan, 2010, compared to Khan, 2018).

Rather than dismissing the framework because of this plurality, or attempting to gloss over the distinctions and assert a greater degree of coherence than is warranted, it is important to understand in more detail what these differences are based on and the strengths and weaknesses of each variant for the central concerns that they seek to address. While there are many potential ways to parse the political settlement literature, a notable difference exists between theorists who understand political settlement primarily “as process” and others who understand political settlement primarily “as action.” The distinction between these two approaches exposes significant differences in theoretical genealogies and modes of analytical operationalization that are useful for untangling the burgeoning literature.

In understanding political settlement “as process,” a political settlement is conceptualized as a stable political order that has not necessarily been planned or consciously willed by different social groups. Instead this stable and reproducible order emerges out of a continuous interaction between different actors seeking to contest or retain particular patterns of rent flows (incomes) that emerge from institutional configurations. The intellectual roots of this approach derive from Marxist political economy and social conflict approaches to understanding institutions. For example, scholarship on the historical roots of capitalism associated with Brenner (1985) and Wood (1999) suggested that particular distributions of power between proto-class groups shaped the outcomes of political struggles over existing institutions. These struggles between groups led to different consequences for the pace and pattern of emergence of new capitalist economic institutions, in particular private property rights and a labor force separated from the ownership of the means of production. These arguments informed the approach to political settlements “as process” by showing how social order emerges out of the complex (intended and unintended) interaction of many different social groups. Political settlement “as process” starts from the assumption that the actual enforcement of any particular institutional arrangement cannot simply be taken for granted (Khan, 2018), so the analysis of institutions must instead seek to explore the underpinning social structures that shape conflict over institutions and determine their effectiveness and impact.

Approaches that understand political settlement “as action” emphasize the role of agreements made by powerful groups or elites to purposefully establish institutions that generate inclusion, stop war, or reduce violent conflict. These agreements may be formal peace agreements but may also consist of elite agreements that are intentionally negotiated through ongoing informal processes. This approach to political settlements has been particularly influential in post-conflict and state building analysis and is prevalent in the donor uses of the concept. In this approach, a political settlement is assumed to exist where there is a clear decrease in the level of violence in society. Thus, forging an inclusive political settlement is seen as a desirable policy outcome. The terms of inclusion in the political settlement—in particular, which groups are part of the negotiations—become the key factor that determine the socioeconomic consequences of stability rather than questions of the actual enforcement of the chosen institutions.

Political settlement “as action” has often been used in tandem with other frameworks that focus explicitly on elite deals or pacts (see Di John & Putzel, 2009; Levy, 2014; Pritchett et al., 2017) and draws on a range of new institutional economic theorists to provide the underpinning assumptions about socioeconomic processes. In some iterations, political settlement is used interchangeably with new institutional economic frameworks such as Douglass North’s limited access orders or Acemoglu and Robinson’s work on inclusive and extractive institutions (World Bank, 2017). In the work on security and peace building, the term political settlement is sometimes used in a general sense to refer to formal and informal agreements between contending groups with an explanatory focus on types of violence rather than on socioeconomic change (see Tadros & Allouche, 2017).

While these two broad categories of political settlement frameworks are internally coherent and each provides a robust framework for research and analysis on its own terms, these significant differences mean that the field of political settlement research is divided at its foundations. The purpose of this article is to explain how to understand and deploy political settlements in research on Africa and beyond while setting out the importance of distinguishing between different approaches to the framework. The second section elaborates the framework and explores its conceptual building blocks. The third provides an overview of existing political settlement research on the topics of economic development, industrial policy, corruption, social policy, and conflict and peacebuilding in Africa. The final section concludes by setting out emerging trends in the development of the framework.

Understanding the Framework

Institutions, power, and rents form the conceptual lexicon used by all iterations of the political settlement framework. Institutions are a subset of social structures that can be defined as systems of established and embedded social rules that structure social interaction (Hogdson, 2006). These include the laws that determine property rights, specific policies, or regulations created by the state or by domestic or international organizations, as well as informal rules that operate within organizations and groups. Institutional theory from classical institutionalism to new institutionalism in its various forms (e.g., rational, sociological, and historical) offers a range of explanations for the dynamics of institutional change and institutional effectiveness. In the past, new institutional approaches were dominated by cooperative models of institutional change. For example, early new institutional economic models argued that the enforcement of institutions (and the social acceptability of different income flows generated) is achieved through voluntary agreement because those who benefited from particular distributions of resources would adequately compensate the losers (Hayami & Ruttan, 1985; North, 1961, 1981). Sociological institutionalism also presented a broadly consensual model of institutional change by focusing on the way that institutions create constructs of meaning internal to agents and gain social acceptability through the creation of this shared meaning (Powell & DiMaggio, 1991; March & Olson, 1989; Meyer & Rowan, 1977).

In contrast, political settlement theory is underpinned by the assumption that conflict and power are central to understanding how institutions work. This social conflict approach is prevalent in Marxist scholarship as well as in the older institutionalist approaches of Thorsten Veblen (2009 [1899]). New institutional variants of historical institutionalism (Hall, 1986; Mahoney & Thelen, 2010; Skocpol, 1994; Streeck & Thelen, 2005; Thelen, 1999) and some recent approaches to new institutional economics (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2013; North et al., 2009) have also recognized the importance of studying the processes of conflict in which institutions emerge and operate, although there are important differences between these approaches and the political settlement framework “as process.” Like other social conflict approaches, the political settlement framework starts from the observation that institutions have distributional consequences and establish patterns of income flows. The effectiveness of any institutional configuration will depend, in part, on the extent to which those with power in society accept the associated patterns of distribution.

This means that understanding the impact of institutions on political and economic change necessitates looking beyond institutions to ask questions about who are the powerful groups in society that enforce or contest institutions. Power is of course a complex concept. Rather than presenting a framework that explores the relative importance of different sources of power over time (as provided by Mann [1993] for example), a political settlement approach is primarily concerned with a more specific set of questions about the causal effectiveness of different groups in contesting and claiming income flows. The sources of power of any group are assumed to be multiple and overlapping drawing from the ideological, organizational, economic, military, and political resources available to different groups.

The causal effect of the exercise of power is not always amenable to direct observation. For example, power shapes the emergence of particular preferences and desires or can suppress and curtail systems of thought and belief. However, power also operates in more observable ways, by determining the outcome of conflicts and struggles between groups over institutions and patterns of rent flows. Khan (2010) introduced the term “holding power” to capture the extent to which groups have power to hold onto rents in actual or potential conflicts against other groups, organizations, or the state. Holding power is not a measure of the degree to which power can be “held” by particular groups (Goodfellow, 2018). Instead, it captures the extent to which groups are successful in contests over flows of rents and institutions–whether they can “hold” out in struggles for resources.

Mapping the relative distribution of holding power at any time involves identifying which groups have won in struggles over income flows within a specific time period. Groups that contest institutions may have formal rules of membership and internal formal institutions, or they may be informal, in the sense that they have informal membership rules, have no internal formal rules, and may be quite ephemeral. Different groups may compete against each other within a single institution or organization. Groups may be class-based or involve multi-class alliances, they may be made up of elites or non-elites or alliances between the two. Some political settlement research of both the process and action variants has focused primarily on elites (Putzel & Di John, 2009; Whitfield, Therkildsen, Buur, & Kjær, 2015). In other work, the relative importance of elites compared to non-elite groups or of different classes is determined by examining specific contexts (Gray, 2018; Khan, 2018). In line with sociological theories of emergent group power, the causal effectiveness of any group is always relative to the power of other groups (Elder Vass, 2010). The implications of this is that groups that have limited causal power themselves may be in alliance with more powerful groups and may therefore be quite effective at contesting particular institutions even if they are relatively weak compared to other groups (Khan, 2018).

One of the key differences between political settlements and other social conflict approaches to institutions concerns the relationship between the distribution of power and the path of institutional change. Historical institutionalists (e.g., Pepinsky, 2013; Przeworski, 2004; Mahoney & Thelen, 2010; Streeck & Thelen, 2005; Thelen, 1999) and recent iterations of new institutional economics, such as North et al. (2009, 2012) and Acemoglu and Robinson (2008, 2013), argue that powerful elites will shape institutions to protect their interests over time. Therefore, a particular structure of power leads to a particular institutional configuration. Political settlements provides a more complex and contingent explanation for the relationship between the pattern of power and the structure of institutions. This is due in part to historical and structural features of contemporary capitalism. It is also because political settlement “as process” focuses on how histories of political mobilization create organizational capabilities that are critical in mediating the different sources of power. The implication of this insight is that even where institutions have been created to serve the interests of particular groups, their effectiveness in achieving their aims is determined by complex contestations that do not simply reflect access to material resources or any one source of power.

Another key distinction between political settlement and other new institutional social conflict approaches is in the conceptualization of the incomes over which groups struggle. In classical institutional approaches, the transformation of institutions over time was driven by struggles between contending classes to control the productive surplus where income flows were in the form of profits, wages, or interest payments. However, transfers and subsidies created by formal and informal actions of the state also generate income flows that are contested, create incentives, and contribute to investible resources (Boss, 1990). The experiences of contestation over this wider set of income flows are also important in determining paths of accumulation and institutional change and hence broader processes of socioeconomic transformation. The struggles between groups in the political settlement framework therefore occur over a broader set of flows—including both the classically defined productive surplus as well as the unproductive surplus. These flows are characterized as rents. The idea of rent in the political settlement framework is therefore different from the concept of rent as defined in classical economics, as an unearned income. The political settlement approach also differs from the concept of rent that is used in new institutional economics. New institutional economics adopts the neoclassical definition of rent where it is narrowly defined as an income generated by an intervention by the state in the market that has negative implications for economic performance (see Gray [2018] for further exploration of the use of the term rent in political settlements).

Another important area of difference between the political settlement framework and other social conflict theories relates to the conceptualization of the state. In the political settlement framework, the state itself is made up of multiple formal and informal groups, and a coalition of these groups makes up the ruling coalition of groups within the state. Describing a political settlement cannot only focus on the relative power of different groups within the state but must involve analyzing the distribution of power outside the ruling coalition and the vertical and horizontal relationships between groups that straddle the state and beyond. For example, between political parties or particular politicians and specific businesses, religious institutions or social movements. Tracing the distribution of power between groups within the state or outside the state necessarily includes considering the international context in which groups have effective holding power. The holding power of groups is often is shaped by international rules and supra-national organizations, such as International Financial Institutions and multinational organizations, as well as regional institutions. International organizations have played a very significant direct role in financing and sustaining or undermining ruling coalitions in a number of African countries and have played a key role in influencing the direction of economic policy and the associated patterns of rents, not least through loan conditionality. Further, understanding the holding power of particular business groups often involves looking beyond the nation state to examine their regional and international presence.

Many powerful groups operate informally. The role of informality is widely recognized in the study of the political economy of the state in African countries (Cheeseman, 2018). It has been conceptualized through the lens of hybridity, non-state governance, and neo-patrimonialism. Medard (1982) and Chabal and Daloz (1999) provide a culturally determinist argument about neopatrimonialism, while new political economy and new institutional economic approaches (e.g., Acemoglu & Robinson, 2008; Bates, 1983) set out a methodologically individualist model where clientelism is the result of individual greed and calculations of maximization (see Gray [2016, 2018] for further discussion). In contrast, the role of clientelism is addressed in the political settlement framework by locating these practices within the context of specific colonial histories and economic structures. The colonial imposition of Western political and economic institutions on pre-existing authority structures led to a disjuncture between the formal institutions of the state and the distribution of power. In most African countries in the post-colonial era, the surplus generated by the expanding capitalist sector remained small and often in the hands of foreign companies rather than the state. While the large capitalist surplus of Western economies plays a key role in consolidating formal institutions that protect the economic and political position of capitalists, the lack of access to a significant surplus leads to more complex relations between domestic capital and the state in African countries (Leys, 1996). Further, colonial governments often facilitated certain forms of accumulation among ethnic minority groups while restricting economic and trading opportunities from the majority. The claims of particular groups of capitalists over state-created income flows in the form of rents can be effectively blocked by other groups who have established greater legitimacy over time even if they have limited economic resources.

Where demands of powerful groups are not met by formal institutions and transparent distributions of income through legally recognized channels, informal rents become important in maintaining political stability. Distinct and varied informal institutions, based on ethnic practices, religious groups, informal trading systems, and traditional authority structures, often carry significant and broad legitimacy and play an important role within any political settlement. Understanding the distribution of holding power requires an engagement in tracing such informal practices and recognizing their embedded importance in particular social contexts. However, the relation between power and institutions becomes even more complex where powerful groups with limited or contested political legitimacy make claims on incomes generated by the state. These demands can often only be met with rents that are not subject to the same kind of public scrutiny as official budgetary transfers or through other forms of transfers and open political support. For example, rents can be distributed through forms of political and bureaucratic corruption or other illegal processes that involve the transfer of off-budget resources to networks of clients and patrons that organize in different factions to make demands on the state. The claims of these factional networks may be perceived as legitimate by some groups but may be contested by others, and over time these perceptions of legitimacy can change with important consequences for the mechanisms and pattern of rent distribution.

Thus, an overarching political order can be maintained by these forms of transfers that may be difficult or impossible to organize transparently for political reasons. Such illegal rents can play a pivotal role in determining political stability, the success of particular policy agendas, and the pace and direction of economic change. The consequence of this is that there is a wide range of configurations of institutions and power that can produce sustainable political order and can generate a range of paths of economic change without leading to an endogenous process of change in formal institutions of the state.

It should be recognized that approaches to the role of clientelism in the field of political settlements also vary both from each other and from the original framing provided by Khan. For example, Kelsall et al. (2013) and Booth and Golooba-Mutebi (2012) start by assuming that patrimonialism is the modal pattern of political organization across Africa, but they argue that in some countries a more centralized form of patrimonialism has emerged that can be characterized as “developmental patrimonialism.” Whitfield et al. (2015) argue against the idea of a modal pattern of neo-patrimonialism but instead emphasize the significant variations within clientelism across African countries, both vertically and horizontally.

There are also differences between the ways in which the “as action” and “as process” variants of political settlement have addressed the role of ideas and ideology in the political settlement. In the “as action” approach, the role of ideas has been addressed by examining the role of policy paradigms and ideas in shaping elite choices over institutions and policy options (Lavers, 2018; Lavers & Hickey, 2015). In the “as process” literature the material logic of clientelism has been analyzed alongside the role of programmatic politics driven by ideological commitments and complex political loyalties. Gray (2018) argues that political commitments to particular political ideologies are a potentially significant force that structures institutions but also the distribution of power. The content of political ideologies can play a significant role in shaping the distribution of power by influencing the perception of the legitimacy of claims of different groups. Ideological commitments also influence holding power through the historical experiences of political mobilization around different political movements. As a result of major social and political upheavals, powerful groups can effectively enforce new institutions even without a significant material transformation. This means that sustainable political orders can be created that do not simply mirror existing patterns of power and access to resources, however such new political orders can be difficult to sustain without a movement toward the redistribution of economic power. Thus, in the “as process” approach to political settlements, ideologies provide distinct logics of redistribution for the state and redistributive agendas also shape different paths of economic change, providing a dialectical understanding of the relationship between ideologies, power, and institutions (Gray, 2018).

Deploying the Framework

The political settlement framework can be deployed to explain a range of economic and political phenomena. Along with other historical institutional approaches, the framework provides a way of addressing “the combined effects of institutions and processes rather than examining just one institution or process at a time” (Pierson & Skocpol, 2002, p. 696). The first requirement of using the political settlement framework is to establish the evolution of the institutions and the distribution of social and economic power over a specified time period. The scale at which a political settlement can be described has been approached in two ways. In 2018 Khan provided a narrower definition of a political settlement as “the distribution of power between organizations that are relevant for analysing a specific institutional or policy problem.” (2018, p. 5). However, in most of the literature discussed here, the political settlement is defined by a high-level description of institutions and distributions of power between groups. It can then be used to explore distinct lower-level configurations of power and institutions that operate and interact within this overarching political settlement.

Rather than focusing on large ruptures in the structure of formal institutions, such as the adoption of a multiparty political system or the introduction of market liberalization policies, studying a political settlement involves looking at how the distribution of power evolves over time beneath the structure of institutions. This means that periodization based on policy eras or on regime types may not match a periodization based on changes within the underlying political settlement. For example, the political settlement in Tanzania remained remarkably stable despite significant shifts in policy from the 1970s to the 1980s (Gray, 2018). Adoption of new institutions may not change the underlying political and economic dynamics of a country where distributions of power remain unchanged. However, changes in the distribution of power will shape the effectiveness of institutions. Thus, changes in political settlements are manifested in concrete and observable political and economic outcomes such as the rate of economic growth, investment decisions, and the level of violence (Khan, 2018).

The next stage in the analytical process is to examine the pattern of formal and informal rents and practices of rent management that are relevant for the phenomena under research. The type of rents and the important characteristics of rent management systems are also influenced by ideological commitments and dominant policy paradigms. These are shaped by forces beyond the nation state, and so patterns of rents and rent-seeking are not simply a mechanical reflection of the distribution of power at the national level. These broader factors that shape rents lie beyond the explanatory power of the political settlement approach but can be included as an addition to the framework. For example, Yanguas (2017) and Hickey and Lavers (2015) use political settlement “as action” and add in an analysis of policy domains to explore how ideas about particular types of reform become effective.

A number of different approaches to classifying political settlements are apparent in the literature. Khan (2010) presented a typology of political settlements that reflects different patterns in the vertical and historical distributions of power between different types of patron–client networks that underpin the control of the ruling coalition over the state. These are the potential development coalition, the authoritarian coalition, the dominant coalition, and competitive clientelism. These ideal types are applied to the study of African countries in Kelsall et al. (2013), and the approach to political settlements based on typologizing has been further expanded in the work of the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre at the University of Manchester and at the Overseas Development Institute in London (see, e.g., Hickey, 2013; Kelsall, 2018). Other researchers reject the need for predictive typologies. Whitfield et al. (2015) and Behuria et al. (2017) argue that the typologies provide a useful starting point for hypothesis forming but cannot not be used in predicting policy successes and failures for particular countries within broad categories of political settlements.

Economic and Industrial Policy

The conceptual tools of the political settlement framework are well suited for studying questions related to economic change and the effectiveness of economic policy. This is because while rents play a role in consolidating political stability, they also have direct implications for the pace and path of economic change. Rents function as a system of incentives for technology acquisition and play a role in providing a source of investible flows. The processes of political stability, market and non-market accumulation, and incentives for technology acquisition and learning interact with each other to produce particular paths of economic change. Rent-seeking can be productive when it leads to investments in expanding production, upgrading, or pioneering new productive sectors. However, rent-seeking can also become unproductive or damaging as it can be difficult for the state to manage rents and in particular remove rents from politically powerful groups, including international and domestic capitalists. Many of the African states that have been using rent management strategies and forms of industrial policy have weaker bureaucracies and less political centralization than the East Asian states that were the focus of the developmental state literature (Amsden, 1992; Aoki et al., 1997; Wade, 1990). An important contribution of the political settlement framework has been to demonstrate that in some circumstances, rents can also be successful even in contexts where there are perceived weaknesses or where clientelism is prevalent. The political settlement framework also offers a way of integrating heterodox economic theory into models of institutional change. This contrasts with new institutional economic approaches that maintain neoclassical economic assumptions about the role of free markets and methodological individualism that underpin new institutional economic approaches (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2008, 2013; North et al., 2009). They also assume that more inclusive political institutions will lead directly to a more inclusive economy. Democratic political institutions therefore will generate a more inclusive pattern of redistribution and economic power over time. Hence there will be a mutually re-enforcing path of inclusive economic and political change.

The political settlement framework is also useful in understanding the dynamics of poverty reduction and inclusion that are generated by different paths of economic growth. There are important differences between the way that “as process” and “as action” approaches have used the framework to explain inclusion. Gray (2018), using the “as process” approach, examines the configurations of power that underpinned experiences of economic change in Tanzania and Vietnam since the 1980s, demonstrating that the economic consequences of political order varied considerably depending on how order was achieved and who enforced it. Further, the consequences of economic transformation for poverty reduction and inequality cannot simply be read off from the structure of political institutions, or the extent of inclusion of groups in policy processes, but depend on a more complex set of economic dynamics that shape wage growth and employment opportunities as well as access and ownership of resources (Gray, 2018).

Both Kelsall et al. (2013) and Whitfield et al. (2015) use the political settlement framework to understand economic development in a range of African countries. Kelsall et al. (2013) uses case studies of Tanzania and Zambia to show how centralization of power allowed for longer time horizons of ruling coalitions that facilitated economic policymaking. Whitfield and Buur (2014) use the political settlement framework to analyze industrial policy in Mozambique and Ghana showing how successful industrial policy depends on mutual interests between the state and capitalists, pockets of efficiency within the bureaucracy that implements industrial policy, and the scope for learning for productivity that is determined both by global conditions and by the types of rents available to industrialists. They show how these features depend on the underlying political settlement. In Mozambique the interest of the Frelimo ruling elite in supporting particular foreign firms in the sugar industry led to mutual interests in reviving the sector. Later the party faced pressure for inclusion by small and medium-sized cane producers, and they were able to respond to these demands, but this only occurred after the large companies had improved their efficiency.

In Ghana, the state played a more active role in leading the cocoa sector as small-scale producers had low technological and marketing capabilities. This facilitated successful policies of support to small-scale producers but did not address problems of upgrading or the challenges of creating a national processing industry. Whitfield et al. (2015) expand their analysis to include case studies of Tanzania and Uganda. They argue that a common feature across many post-independent African countries was the lack of a significant group of domestic capitalists and the dominance of émigré or settler capitalists that had higher capabilities but weak political power.

Mustapha et al. (2018) use the political settlement framework to study inclusion and poverty reduction in agro-processing in Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. They find that the political consolidation and accumulation objectives of the ruling coalition shape certain crop and processing location decisions. The success of agro-processing depends on the particular “ethnic and business groups or political parties who benefit from its development, and whether this enhances political stability and resource control, or poses a destabilizing threat to the ruling coalition” (Mustapha et al., 2018, p. 25).

Gray (2013) uses the political settlement framework to set out the long-term challenges of industrial policy in Tanzania that relate to the complex relations between the mainly Asian-Tanzanian industrialists and the ruling party. Close informal relations were constructed between the state and the private sector after independence and continued during the socialist period. These relations continued to influence accumulation strategies within industry under liberalization. The difficulty of organizing open transfers to domestic industrialists meant that “as well as the technical and ideological constraints on industrial policy under liberalization, there were political challenges for the state in supporting an inequitable process of capitalist industrial development that was seen to benefit foreign and non-indigenous capitalist groups” (Gray, 2013, p. 197).

Kjaer (2015) uses the political settlement framework to understand policy decisions to support particular sectors over others. She argues that the decision to support the Ugandan dairy sector rather than the fisheries sector was influenced by the role of key actors in that sector in maintaining the ruling coalition within the state. This was also the case in advisory services reform where the original initiatives did not support the interests of powerful factions. From an “as action” approach, Hickey and Izama (2017) also apply the political settlement to Uganda to explore the politics of governing oil. They find that Uganda’s political settlement has changed from a dominant-developmental settlement to a weak-dominant form political settlement. They argue that investments during the early years that supported technocrats in negotiations helped to strengthen their hand in negotiations with international oil companies. They go on to argue that the developmental capacity may become weaker once oil actually starts to flow.


The political settlement framework provides a way of understanding the drivers and implications of corruption that differs from other approaches that focus on individual greed (Rose Ackerman, 1999) or on cultural norms (Blundo, Olivier de Sardan, & Arifari, 2006). Instead, the political settlement framework explains that the prevalence of corruption has structural drivers and partly reflects the fact that it may be difficult to organize open transfers through legal channels where there are competing demands from powerful groups that have limited political legitimacy but may threaten political stability. Khan and Gray (2006) show that implications of corruption on economic performance are quite diverse. They identify four types of corruption that require different responses: market-restricting type of corruption, state-constraining corruption, political corruption, and predatory corruption. Understanding the implication of these different forms of corruption requires an understanding of corruption as a process that fits into the wider dynamics of accumulation and political stability that is unique to each political settlement.

Jamie Macuane, Buur, and Monjane (2018) examine the case of secret loans taken out by ruling elites in Mozambique that ultimately led to the withdrawal of donor support to the country. They show how this was linked to features of the political settlement driven by the rise of a natural resource–based economy. Prospects of future windfalls led to changing dynamics and exacerbated already existing power struggles. As a result, politics became more exclusionary, and internal struggle over these rents led to political turbulence within the ruling coalition. Gray (2015) examines grand corruption in Tanzania and highlights its political drivers. The article explains why grand corruption has been resistant to anti-corruption reforms in Tanzania and beyond. However, the reasons for the challenges of reducing corruption are specific to different countries, depending on how power is distributed. Bowman (2019) examines the crises of corruption in South Africa’s state-owned energy company, Eskom, and shows how these should not simply be interpreted as a generic failure of state-ownership or industrial policy. Instead, a political settlement lens helps to reveal the historical processes that have produced “multiple conflicting imperatives for state organizations and intense distributional pressures” (Bowman, 2019, p. 2) that contributed to Eskom’s organizational dysfunction. Vilakazi and Roberts (2019) examine how firm links with elite politics shape the formation of cartels in Southern Africa and use insights from the political settlement framework to explore whether rents accruing to different actors played a role in generating productive investments and capability development or not.

Social Policy

In recent years a number of political settlement researchers have used the framework to examine a wide range of issues related to social policy. Here again it is important to distinguish between “as action” and “as process” approaches. Social policy “as action” has focused on why elites choose to adopt different policies and have highlighted the role of ideas. “As process” approaches have focused on the ways that particular paths of economic change and social provisioning have combined to lead to different outcomes for poverty and inequality even where governments have given formal commitments to poverty reduction policy agendas. Taking an “as action” approach, Hickey and Lavers (2015) set out to show how the attempts by transnational actors to promote social protection expansion depended on the compatibility of the policy ideas with existing political settlements. Thus, they explain the different orientation of African countries toward social protection policy and the capacity for implementation as resulting from the compatibility between the underlying interests and ideas of powerful factions within the political settlement. Buur and Salimo (2018) work on social protection and social transfers advocated by donor partners. Initially resistant, the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) agreed to donor-driven social protection measures, addressed the needs of the ruling party to placate social unrest, and fit in with supporting the legitimacy of the state based on the idea of national unity and dominance of Frelimo ruling party.

Goodfellow (2018) uses the framework to examine urban built environments and their transformations in African countries. He argues that issues such as the nature of urban land use and land allocation, the pace and form of construction, the effectiveness of environmental regulation, and the provision of housing for different income groups are all revealing of political settlements and their broader development implications. Croese’s (2017) study of Angola’s housing argues that state-led housing delivery was used an instrument of the ruling elite to consolidate their power. The key forms of rent distribution associated with housing delivery occurred through the centralized use of actors and institutions that emerged historically outside regular government structures.

Languille’s (2016) examination of education policy in Tanzania shows how the secondary school textbook publishing industry became a site of rent-seeking, driven by the distribution of power within the state, and the ambiguous relations between the CCM ruling elites, bureaucrats, and the capitalist class. Abdulai and Hickey (2016) also study education investment decisions through a political settlement lens. They show how important regional inequalities in access to education were the result of a particular distribution of power. The north did not attract substantial per capital public education expenditures in the 1990s despite voting consistently for the National Democratic Congress since 1992. This was because, despite their support to the ruling coalition, the north was not well represented within the power structure, particularly in top positions, leading to underinvestment in the education sector. Their findings contrast with ideas that electoral strongholds will receive more support from the state.

The extent to which the political settlement framework can provide insights into gender dynamics has gained increasing attention. O’Rourke (2017) suggests that “[d]ebates within the literature regarding the relative influence of social movements have particular significance for understanding the gender dimensions of political settlements.” In political settlement “as process,” social movements have long been recognized as playing a pivotal role in shaping the distribution of power. For example, Khan’s early political settlement framework explored the rise of political Islam in Bangladesh (Khan, 1995). An important question that is open to exploration through the political settlement framework is the extent to which social movements, including movements for gender equality, are able to influence the distribution of power and implement particular mandates of reform. Groups involved in social movements develop organizational capabilities that can have far-reaching legacies for the distribution of power within a political settlement, even though their specific political demands may change significantly over time.

The implications of political mobilizations can be far-reaching for the distribution of power but in complex ways that are not necessarily related to the original demands and social configurations of the groups that underpinned the movements. Gray (2018) shows how attempts to construct socialism in the 1960s and 1970s in Tanzania and Vietnam left very different legacies for the wider distribution of power in society once socialist policies had been abandoned. These differences were generated by the specific experiences of political organization and mobilization that brought the socialist party to power, the extent to which the ruling party was able to consolidate power, the degree to which formal socialist collective economic institutions were established and became productive, and the extent to which attempts to construct a socialist economy actually led to a change in the distribution of economic power.

Conflict and Civil War

As argued at the beginning of this article, approaches to political settlement that understand the framework “as action” have predominantly focused on questions related to conflict and civil war. In the common usage of the term, a political settlement is simply the absence of conflict and is used to describe political agreements reached between groups to end war; however, this general definition tends to undertheorize the conceptual components of the framework. There are important differences between researchers using variants of the political settlement framework in terms of understanding the role and implications of violence. Within the political settlement literature on war and peace agreements there are also important differences and researchers have defined a political settlement in a variety of ways. For example, Bell and Pospisil (2017) define a political settlement as a tacit and more explicit agreement, usually among elites, about the distribution of power and resources and the nature of the linkages between state and society. In contrast, Tadros and Allouche (2017, p. 183) define a political settlement as the “interface between formal and informal actors in negotiation processes unfolding at critical junctures.” Their key research questions focus on how to understand the role of violence in the negotiated outcome emerging from critical political junctures. The differentiation between types of rents and their various structural drivers and socioeconomic implications are less important in these “as action” approaches that have focused on explaining the dynamics of war and conflict. In the “as process” version of political settlements, high levels of violence are not automatically a sign of a collapsing political settlement. Violence can remain high even within a stable political settlement (Khan, 2018), and processes of economic development can generate tensions within political settlements that exacerbate rather than reduce violence (Gray, 2016).


The political settlement framework provides many new insights into the dynamics of political economy. It opens up new theoretical and methodological approaches to examining long standing questions about the relationship between power, institutions and socioeconomic outcomes in Africa and beyond. For those wishing to use or to critically engage with the framework, it is important as a starting point to recognize that there are significant differences between the two approaches set out in this article. One response to this diversity is to call for a unified approach to political settlements (Kelsall, 2018). Another response, as articulated here, is to clarify the differences and understand the insights of the two types of political settlement framework on their own terms. This allows for a recognition that such tensions can be important for driving research and thinking forward. The future of research in the field of political settlements is best served by an approach that does not try to achieve agreement at the expense of analytical precision.


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