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Building an inclusive, responsive and capable state

The multiple crises of economy, environment and governance have brought the focus back on the state. And not a day too soon, says John Samuel

The multiple crises of economy, environment and governance have brought the state back to the centre of political and policy discourse. Those who promoted the idea of the state as a corollary of the market seem to have lost their legitimacy. So there is a need to revitalise the relationship between the people and the state, in relation to the discourse on human development and democracy.  

The renewed focus on the role and relevance of an inclusive, responsive and capable state is a timely response to the multiple shifts in development discourse and the multiple forms of crisis. It is on the one hand a reaffirmation of the charter principles of the United Nations and on the other  a commitment to the promises of the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals. 

The ongoing economic and climate crises exposed the fallacy of notions such as “more market means less state” or “the market knows best” and the consequent overemphasis on the market as the key driver of development. The economic crisis -– resulting from lack of regulation and state oversight of finance capital markets -- will affect the less developed countries and poor people more than others. It would also reduce available resources for development in the less developed economies. So financing for development and the idea of the development-state is back as a defining force. Reclaiming the position of the state at the centre of the discourse on democratic governance points to a transformative agenda that goes beyond the top-down technical fixes of the market model to a more contextual political economy perspective that recognises the agency of people in terms of analysing and addressing issues related to governance and human development.  

The political process at the national level and an understanding of the multi-dimensional aspects of power is crucial for governance assessment and analysis. National ownership and the participation of multi-stakeholders and inclusive spaces for women, the poor and marginalised are central to the transformative agenda of democratic governance. 

While both civil society and market are important stakeholders in the process of development, the state -- as the more concrete and evolved form of social contract -- has the most legitimate role in ensuring human development and human rights, with equity, sustainability and peace. While an inclusive, responsive and capable state can provide enabling conditions for market and civil society, the primacy of the state -– as the site of the political process and as an expression of the sovereignty of citizens -- is integral to the idea of democracy and development.  

The legitimacy of the inclusive, responsive and capable state is derived from the origin of power as well as the exercise of power. The effectiveness of the state is to a large extent based on the responsiveness and performance of its institutions.

A discussion on the state in the context of democratic governance draws attention to the outcomes of state action and not only the process related to the government and the state. The normative principle of inclusiveness has dimensions of peoples’ participation, non-discrimination, human rights and women’s rights. The principle of responsiveness implies transparency, accountability, and delivery and quality of services. And a capable state is one with capable institutions to effectively and efficiently raise and manage resources as well as the capacity to deliver human development and ensure equity, sustainability and peace.  

The practice of inclusiveness and responsiveness contribute to the making of a capable state. The principles and practice of human rights, women’s rights, inclusive participation, transparency, accountable and responsive institutions, voices of the women, poor and marginalised, and delivering human development are central to the discourse of democratic governance.

Apart from stressing the importance of elections in building the legitimate mandate, the practice of democratic governance in relation to an inclusive, responsive and capable state will also involve a number of specific elements, including: 

a) Independent, capable and sustainable institutional framework of parliament, executive, judiciary, election commission and an effective system of delivery of justice and development.  

b) A system of checks and balances, in which the rightful role of parliament in particular is duly respected. 

c) An effective, transparent, and responsive public administration and local governance system which can ensure the delivery of human development and justice in an inclusive manner. 

d) A set of anti-corruption institutions, to ensure that law-making and other government decisions are in the public interest and not for private gain. 

e) Freedom of association, assembly and expression, basic rights that are needed for citizens to be able to organise and act collectively in civil society. 

f) Access to justice through laws, policies and institutions, in consonance with human rights, and effective policing as a responsive and accountable public service to ensure security and peace. 

g) Access to information, so that citizens can know what state agents are doing; and 

h) A range of institutional opportunities for citizens to provide inputs in matters of government and accountability, whether participation of local government, sending petitions to representatives and ombudsmen, voting on referendum or other forms of political participation. 

In the 20th year of the shift to the human development paradigm and in the tenth year of the Millennium Declaration, the very idea of an inclusive, responsive and capable state acquires special significance as the state has been a constant point of reference in the human development approach as well as the rights-based approach to development.  

It is important to understand and appreciate the diversity of the political process, and the socio-cultural, historical and economic contexts that shape and define the nature, character and performance of the state. Working towards an inclusive, responsive and capable state also means appreciating the process and dynamics of power -- in its multidimensional aspect -- in different contexts. This would increasingly point to the need to adopt a political economy perspective on analysing and understanding the sources and nature of power in the context of democratic governance and as the basis for development programming. This task is indeed more challenging in the context of the countries that are in the midst of conflicts or those coping with post-conflict challenges.  

This also points to the need for more south-south exchanges of knowledge and practice across the world, particularly among countries with similar socio-economic, cultural or historical contexts. Hence the agenda towards an inclusive, responsive and capable state is both a learning opportunity and an action agenda. Such an agenda will be transformative when people, particularly women, the poor and marginalised, can reclaim the state and governance to claim political and policy spaces and to assert their dignity and rights as citizens.  

Infochange News & Features, June 2010