Book Review: The Politics of Development

June 26, 2024

     By Duncan Green     

This is one of those books that makes you ask, ‘why haven’t we had one of these before?’ The Politics of Development starts from the premise that all development is political, and expertly unpacks the evidence for that assertion and the implications for thinking and practice.

In terms of content, as well as the focus on politics, and its ‘3I’ constituent elements of ideas, interests and institutions, which form the first section of the book, there is a welcome thread throughout on understanding the nature of power whether in sustaining or changing the status quo. Ditto on the importance of inequality, and the way the 3Is ratchet it up or reduce it. In short, this is my kind of book.

The Politics of Development covers a huge amount of ground in its large format 392 pages (£30.99, discounts for students, but no Open Access version – boo! ☹). It summarizes the key authors, (including a good number from the Global South). It introduces the basics (role of institutions, authoritarianism v democracy etc), but goes into fascinating chapters on questions like ‘when do people accept authority?’ (or not) or ‘how can I jump this queue’ (on petty corruption). The first of these, by Jonathan Fisher and Claire McLoughlin, was particularly good (even though it blanked LSE’s work on public authority 😉).

The style is great, with evocative case studies, boxes on core ideas and short ‘reflective questions’ for use in class e.g. ‘is grassroots democracy always helpful in achieving desired futures? Why?’ That does however give you a flavour of the leading nature of some of the questions. I think students in many cases will quickly sus that there is a ‘right answer’ to them, which is a shame.

Better, more open-ended suggestions appear at the end of each chapter in a set of discussion questions for classes and book groups (‘Does everyone want inclusion? Are there any conditions under which some people may not want to be included?’). Each chapter ends with 3 or so pieces of further reading.

Interestingly, the authors hail from the International Development Department of one university – Birmingham. That gives it a level of coherence, but is coherence always such a good thing in academia? [Discuss]. For one thing, it can lead to gaps – no chapter on populism? Or Systems Thinking? In the ground it does cover, work by other institutions can get overlooked eg Public Authority (LSE) or the role of intermediaries in helping poor people get the state’s attention for their problems (IDS) or anti-corruption (SOAS) – and that’s just the UK.

Like any edited volume, there is inevitably some unevenness. A couple of the chapters feel a bit outdated and/or simplistic, eg on Economic Policy (too much banging on about structural adjustment, not enough on industrial policy, new green deal etc) or Aid (gives it too much importance compared to other sources of money and is too dismissive of the aid system’s ability to reform, but I’m probably just being defensive). Elsewhere, it’s bang up to date, eg the chapter on decolonizing knowledge production. Overall though, the book does justice to the diversity and nuance of evidence, history and academic argument.

The style is very accessible, like listening to a good lecturer who is on top of her subject and drawing you into the debates and nuances.

I’ll use it to dip in and mug up on slippery fuzzwords, a quick bluffer’s guide to everything from political settlements to intersectionality. As a textbook, I suspect that is how it will be used by most people, rather than reading it from end to end (another argument for Open Access, IMO). I’ll be turning to the final chapter on Conflict and Peacebuilding if we decide to include a week on violence as a theory of change (as was proposed by one of our students in her assignment this year).

It was, though, a strangely abrupt way place for the book to end. I was left wanting a final wrap up, however brief, on its big messages.

Overall, this is a wonderful book. It should be on the bookshelf and reading list of anyone teaching about, or even interested in, the realities of how development does or doesn’t happen. Great job.

June 26, 2024
Duncan Green


  1. Gosh so pleased that you are taking time off granddad duties to continue writing – but immensely curious about this book and surprised that the realisation that all development is political has only now come on to the bookshelves. Also more than a little irritated that despite as you say an úp to date chapter on decolonising knowledge production, this book is not open access and has limited availability for those to whom GBP thirty is not an affordable cost!!! Curious to know who the Global South authors are who contributed and/or who are referenced in the book…..

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      I’ll leave it to the authors/editors to respond Priyanthi, but from my PoV, it’s the fact that it is a textbook that is so welcome. Obvs lots of people, (including you!) have been writing about the politics of dev for ages.

    2. Hi Priyanthi…thanks for the reply! Yes, it’s a textbook. Textbooks are always playing catch-up. But this was co-produced for students, with students. Hopefully it will prompt some lively classroom debates. And we did our best to keep the price as low as possible but hope that some institutions will be able to make it free access to students.

      (p.s. you helped me a lot when you were at CEPA – hope you’re well).

      – Claire Mcloughlin

  2. “Capitalism is an organized system to guarantee that greed becomes the primary force of our economic system and allows the few at the top to get very wealthy and has the rest of us riding around thinking we can be that way, too – if we just work hard enough, sell enough Tupperware and Amway products, we can get a pink Cadillac.” Michael Moore

  3. This book looks interesting and I would look forward to reading it. While there may not be–as you note– many (any?) publications looking at this angle, that may be true from the generic perspective; however there are plenty of books from different countries embracing this very opic –but with a focus on the particular country, rather than a generic view.

    1. Exactly, Iván, thank you! And the book makes use of them – indeed, tries to make sense of them for students. There are over 850 references to a really wide range of books, articles and literature from across the world. And the good news is that we don’t do disciplines.

      All the best,

      – Claire Mcloughlin

  4. Congratulations on the remarkable achievement of publishing your book! The role of politics in development was a topic of discussion within New Institutional Economics since the late 80s. Namely, Douglass North suggests a new field of study ( i. e New Political Economy). This discussion is even pushed further by Political settlement analysis (I. e Mushtaq Khan). It is also related to the recent argument which is advanced by Dercon’s book (Gambling on Development) .

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