In The News

Developmental Leadership Requires Forging Coalitions

November 30, 2011

In a recent speech at the Overseas Development Institute, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair stressed the important role that leadership plays in development.

Now, as the Forum draws to an end, the importance of leadership proves a crucial and timely message, and one that is closely tied into the growing debate about development “ownership”; for it is important to remember that ownership requires “owners.” Such owners, however, cannot be confined to the top leadership of central government, as ownership also requires action and support from leaders at the sub-national level, as well as across all sectors, including the private sector and wider interests in civil society. The new challenge for development that has been addressed in Busan – and will, hopefully, continue to be addressed beyond it – is how the international community can help to facilitate or broker processes through which these leaderships can work better together to share ownership of locally appropriate and legitimate institutions and policies.

But, while policy-makers recognize that leadership matters, they are also prone to ask the questions: “So what?” and “What can we do about it?” In light of such unanswered questions, the Developmental Leadership Program (DLP), an international policy initiative directed by an independent steering committee of partner organizations, including The Asia Foundation, funded primarily by AusAID,  works to better understand and promote the role developmental leadership plays in fostering sustainable economic growth, political stability, and inclusive social development.

However the focus on individual leaders tends to suggest that they, on their own, can directly transform a country’s economic and political well-being. But that may well be too large a claim. At DLP we recognize that leadership in development is an unavoidably political process, not simply a function of individual attributes or the work of history’s so-called “great men” or “great women.” In fact, developmental leadership has always involved forging a variety of coalitions – formal and informal, vertical and horizontal – both among individuals and organizations within the state apparatus and between them and a wide range of economic, social, and political interests within and beyond the national level. Moreover, leadership is not confined to the national, governmental, or the (narrowly understood) political domain. Rather, it is critical at sub-national levels of government, in all sectors such as health, education and agriculture, as well as in business associations, trades unions and the professions, to name a few.

In these areas of interest there is a deep synergy between the DLP and The Asia Foundation, and joint work is taking place. For example, in conjunction with the DLP, The Asia Foundation is running a series of workshops for AusAID officials and others about how to think and work in a politically informed way. And a joint Asia Foundation/DLP project is currently under way in the Philippines where a team of researchers is working to better understand the dynamics of social sector reform processes in that country and, in particular, the role of local developmental leaders and reform coalitions.

Already, DLP’s research findings have helped shed light on when, why, and how such developmental leaderships emerge. Our evidence indicates that, in fact, critical events, such as sudden threats, challenges, crises or opportunities, often trigger windows of opportunity for developmental leaderships and coalitions to form in order to work collectively to resolve issues, which they would not be able to resolve on their own.

Learning how to support the emergence and activities of developmental leaderships and coalitions thus represents an urgent challenge for the international community, but has not been especially high on the agenda at Busan. It will need to be recognized that brokering and facilitating such coalitions – in all sectors and at all levels – can contribute significantly to the processes of development to enable local leaderships to really take ownership of developmental policy and practice. As ODI’s David Booth blogged recently, this is tricky territory and may require some difficult changes on the part of donors. Our work is beginning to produce some insights that we hope can inform the international community about how to support countries in finding solutions to these long-term development challenges and issues.

Adrian Leftwich is DLP’s director of research and an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of York. He can be reached at Adrian.leftwich@york.ac.uk. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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