We need to reclaim the state, but… how?

Published on 28 July 2016

Pedro Prieto Martín

Honorary Associate

The IDS Conference on States, Markets and Society was a unique event: academics, practitioners, activists and government officials from all over the world came together to share and discuss a variety of ideas and perspectives on the future of development. Their conversations made me feel deeply enriched, but also challenged around the role of Politics, Innovation and Cities, because most discussions revolved around uncertainties rather than certitudes.

What follows is my personal itinerary through the conference: a “collage” of things said, heard, and thought while trying to untangle the role of Politics, Innovation and Cities for development. I’ll leave all quotes unreferenced, as this post aims to celebrate the collective richness of the Conference, rather than praising certain participants.

The undervalued importance of politics

One essential idea that resonated through all the streams is that a serious rebalancing of the relationship between states, markets and societies is required in order to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. The state is seen as occupying a “prevalent role as a politically conscious actor”: it is ultimately responsible for framing the overall governance of the ‘state/market/society’ triad.

But “the key for good governance is good government: you cannot achieve good governance if you do not get good government”. Hence the “need to reclaim the state and make sure it regulates well, to make markets work for the interest of all… which means they have to work for the poor”. “We need to enable states to reclaim power” and make good use of “their normally underestimated constructive potential”.

As a result, politics comes to the forefront as an essential development catalyst (even the World Bank now says so!), which leverages “civil society lessons, as well as people’s knowledge, agency and political emotions” to generate positive change.

The awareness that most development challenges are essentially political rather than technical was also expressed many times among the panels: environment, financing, innovation, unemployment and accountability. They all depend on political actions rather than “narrow, rigid, frequently imposed, one-size-fits-all, technocratic solutions”. Multiple examples were provided showing how promising changes are already happening in many different places and contexts, “frequently at small scale, and under the radar”.

The growing centrality of cities

We should get political, sure, but how to do it?, or where?, or even who? If we are not even able to “construct alliances within civil society itself”, how could we effectively get political at a large scale? Indeed, there was not much agreement or clarity in the panels on how to implement politics for development.

But the session on ‘The age of the City?’ completed my ‘collage’. This panel explored the social, political and theoretical innovations emerging from cities in the Global South, and underpinned the centrality of cities for development. “More than half of the global population now lives in cities”, cities which act as global and interconnected hubs that “concentrate and amplify economies and innovation, but also concentrate poverty, and inequality, and risks”. Most “development issues are thus becoming urbanized”, up to the point that “we will not be able to come close to achieve the SDGs without seriously taking cities into account”.

I realised that, by applying to cities the recommendations that previously sounded to me like wishful thinking, they became much more concrete and doable. At the local level, it is easier to hold politicians accountable and to mobilise people to get rid of the worst of them. Networking and mutual learning, problem-solving, cooperation between state, market and people…in fact, most development issues seem weaker and more treatable at the local level. What a brave new world, if it was ruled by mayors!

The proof is in the pudding

In the workshop on Open Source Institutions, participants shared multiple stories of change where digital technologies had affected the state/market/society interaction. One of the stories comes in handy to illustrate how political change and innovation are more prone to happen at the local level: the one about the city of Alcalá de Henares, in Spain.

After years of suffering corrupt and unapt government, Alcalá’s previously fragmented civil society made use of digital tools – among other things – to intensify their cooperation and to reach out to fellow citizens. Few months before the last local elections, a citizens’ party was created, which campaigned on ethics and a strong social agenda. The elections gave them six of twenty seven councillors, which were able to force a change in the city’s government and are now contributing to modernise the administration and to improve the state/market/society interactions in the city.

Municipality’s tenders, for example, now include social and environmental clauses. Moreover, Somos Alcalá’s councillors decided to voluntarily reduce their salaries and let the municipality use the savings (est. 640.000 euros in 4 years) to support CSO projects. In fact, similar stories happened in many other Spanish cities, including Madrid,  Barcelona and Valencia. Each city is experimenting according to its specific local context, but a lot of exchanges and learning are already happening.

In summary: if “we need to reclaim the state”, but are not sure where to start… let’s try local.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


Related content