APPP - Origins

This page explains the starting point, major features and expected outcomes of the APPP's programme design process. This phase came to a close in September 2008. More about current research

Starting-point: the research problem

The argument for the research that we are undertaking starts from the following elements:
  • Africa’s lagging development performance has been convincingly attributed to, among other things, the nature of politics and the state. But what sort of problem is this, and what is the solution?
  • The standard donor analysis blames “bad governance”, and the standard political-science analysis points to the neopatrimonial (hybrid) character of African states.
  • But prior achievement of “good governance” has not been a feature of national development historically – not in Europe or in Asia. Nor have neopatrimonial states had to be comprehensively modernised before fast economic growth and poverty reduction were achieved.
  • If there is an historical norm, it is a stepwise evolution of feudal or patrimonial (or, in China and Vietnam, communist) states towards greater development effectiveness.
  • Although patterns vary enormously and there are no models, modernising regimes have typically made extensive use of previous institutions that can be made functional for development.
  • The current international orthodoxies on institutional reform for development are open to the charge that they are “kicking away the ladder” that allowed the developed parts of the world climb to where they now are (Chang)

This suggests the following questions about Africa’s past and current development experience:

  • Can we identify any hybrid institutional patterns that have been functional for developmental outcomes – for example, because they have provided ways of overcoming the under-supply of essential “public goods” that typifies poor countries? Can we distinguish these from the aspects of neopatrimonialism that have proven themselves irremediably anti-developmental?
  • Have the universalistic precepts of Good Governance made us overlook opportunities for working “with the grain” of African societies?
  • What political and economic institutions once delivered development in Africa but no longer do, and why did they disappear?
  • Can we derive systematic knowledge from studies of informal (de facto) political institutions – “the way things really work” – with a view to making practical proposals for their amelioration? In other words, can we build up generalisations from comparative research that suggest new directions for policy, globally and at country level?
  • In summary, can we discover political institutions that provide not just “good enough governance” (Grindle), but a positively distinctive African approach to governance for development?

More on the evidence base

As noted on the page on the programme’s Aims and Scope, we are focusing closely on power and politics in Africa. We are proceeding primarily on the basis of comparative analysis within and between African countries, not a global review of development experience. This focus is potentially limiting. In order to obtain a sufficiently rich evidence base which includes successes as well as failures, and institutional creativity as well as path-dependency, we are ransacking historical as well as current experience, and will work with various kinds of sub-national unit of analysis (sectors, subsectors, localities, etc.) where relevant variations seem to be present, as well as across countries. Even if our final objective is to establish the contours that might be displayed by an “African developmental state”, it makes good sense to do empirical work at subnational levels.

Design process

Even with this approach, finding enough institutionally driven variability in developmental outcomes (as measured, for example, by the adequacy of provision of key public goods) is a challenge. It was partly for this reason that we allocated a full year to the basic design of the research. During the design phase, we began developing our concepts and hypotheses about how political institutions and the exercise of power shape development outcomes. However, we tried to avoid premature closure of the discussion on these issues until the range of relevant and researchable experiences had been established. We expect conceptual refinement and hypothesis-formation to be continuous as empirical research proceeds. We have agreed a highly integrated research design, in which the component projects (Research Streams) are quite highly coordinated. This seems a precondition for the research to acquire the systematic qualities that are needed to enable theory-building and usable policy conclusions. An actively managed and iterative design process was fed by three types of inputs:

  • Commissioned think-pieces (desk studies) drawing on existing African and global literature, to identify relevant types of variation – that is, differences in power structures and formal/informal institutional combinations that appear to explain differences in development outcomes in broadly comparable contexts.
  • Brainstorming sessions within the research team, to pull together what the whole consortium knows or suspects about relevant variability, the degree to which it has been and could be researchable and the commitments and capacities of the partners for carrying the work forward.
  • Scoping interviews/focus groups/engagement sessions with carefully selected key individuals in selected African countries, with the multiple purpose of: a) finding an appropriate language in which to explain and promote our research questions; b) “scoping” researchable topics, and c) starting a network of influential and potentially sympathetic opinion leaders.

Revised versions of several of the commissioned think-pieces have been published in the programme’s Discussion Paper series (see Publications). Others are forthcoming.


Concepts and methods


Our discussions about theoretical and methodological issues are not concluded and will continue alongside the refinement of our thinking on topics and sites for empirical enquiry (see Research Streams). However, the analytical approaches that programme will be drawing upon include:

  • Institutional path-dependency in African countries and its limits, as indicated by close analysis of crucial turning-points.
  • Modes of formal and informal (“global”, “neotraditional”, etc.) accountability, responsiveness and legitimacy; their conflicts and interactions; and their separate and joint effects on development outcomes.
  • How to conceptualise the mix of formal and informal relationships and rules that characterise hybrid institutions, and relate this to observable differences in outcomes.
  • Ways of “embedding” bureaucracies and policy processes in societies that strengthen or weaken their performance/effectiveness from a developmental point of view.
  • The sequencing of democratisation and other dimensions of state formation, and effects of party competition on patronage.
  • Typical “collective-action problems” at different levels, and the search for institutional solutions that are feasible within specific communities of meaning.
  • The scope for innovative leadership to alter institutional patterns, or redirect “corruption”, and the typical constraints on such action.
  • New or emerging forms of interaction between corporate (especially South African) capital, economic institutions and political systems.
  • The incentive effects on all of the above of aid, withdrawal of aid, new donors and choice of aid modality.
On methodological issues, we are conducting a continuing discussion on:
  • ways of undertaking case studies, current and historical, which permit comparison, aggregation of findings and theory development;
  • the pros and cons of various approaches to causal inference which bridge the gap between single case-studies and multivariate analysis with large data-sets;
  • the suitability of different ways of operationalising the phrase “institutions that work for the poor” when assessing the outcomes associated with different institutional arrangements.

Discussion Papers on these subjects are also included in the programme’s series.

The Africa Power and Politics Programme was a Research Programme Consortium funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and Irish Aid for the benefit of developing countries.
The views expressed on this website and in APPP's publications are those of the authors and should not be attributed to DFID or Irish Aid or any of APPP's member organisations.