How to identify a developmental state? Definitions, methods and disagreements

Scholars started to define and elaborate the concept of a developmental state in response to their explorations of the economic growth stories of countries in South East Asia, and this particular experience has tended to dominate the framing of the concept (Johnson 1982; 1987 and Evans 1995). Although there were a number of previous examples of economic growth in which the state has been seen to be the key actor. The political theorist most commonly associated with the first argument for the importance of state-led development is Friedrich List who argued that Germany needed to take a state-led approach to development to ‘catch up’ with Great Britain (List 1904, cf. White and Wade 1988, p.1; Leftwich 2000, p.155).


The centrality of the East Asian ‘miracle’ to the developmental states literature means this review spends some time considering the multiplicity of arguments over what the key conditions were which precipitated their success, and their becoming (or becoming identified as) developmental states. However, Johnson notes that the concept also exists as an abstract generalization (Johnson 1999, p.43). In the abstract the developmental state refers to the synthesis of otherwise very particular specifics of each East Asian case into a model, an ideal type, of the developmental state. Johnson’s own Japanese model was perhaps the first of these typologies (Johnson 1982, pp. 305-324). The precise composition of the attributes associated with developmental states varies. However, for the purpose of this review I will summarise these as being

1. A capable, autonomous (but embedded) bureaucracy (Evans, 1995).

2. A political leadership oriented towards development (Musamba, 2010; Fritz and Menocal 2007).

3. A close, often mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between some state agencies (often discussed as pilot agencies) and key industrial capitalists. (Johnson, 1982; 1987).

4. Successful policy interventions which promote growth (Wade, 1990; Beeson, 2004).


In addition to this summary, one of the key distinctions within the literature which I argue is central to understanding developmental states emerges from Vu’s work (2007, p.38), namely that between developmental structures and developmental roles. The definition of developmental states on which this review is based is a definition of a state which possesses developmental structures (state capacity) and uses these to perform developmental roles. The necessity of capacity and leadership/vision in combination is echoed by other scholars as well (Fritz and Menocal, 2007). What I find useful about Vu is that he highlights how both of these elements can also exist separately of each other, whilst they are still needed in combination for a developmental state to be successful. So my working definition is that: A developmental state has sufficient state capacity to be effective in its targeted areas and has a developmental vision such that it chooses to use this capacity to work towards economic development. – In other words, it has developmental structures and performs developmental roles.


Whilst this is the definition utilised here, there are other ways to conceive of the developmental state. Usually, those states identified as developmental states have been successful in achieving marked levels of growth. Sometimes developmental states are identified primarily on their achievement of economic growth. This association between the form of the state and its resultant success means that it is hard to identify developmental states prior to their attainment of successful growth (Fritz and Menocal 2007, p. 534). Moreover, some scholars have argued that the terms risk being tautological “…since evidence that the state is developmental is often drawn deductively from the performance of the economy” (Mkandawire 2001, p.290). He argues that for the term to mean anything there has to be the possibility for the state to be developmental but not achieve economic growth due to unforeseen external shocks (Mkandawire 2001). In other words, there has to be the possibility for there to be failed developmental states.


There is, however, some literature which discusses precisely what Mkandawire is concerned about, namely, failed developmental states (Herring, 1999). The discussion of failed developmental states rests on defining the developmental states not by their successes but by their commitment to a widely held ambition – a hegemonic ideology – of development (Woo-Cummings, 1999). This definition of the developmental state separates off one of the two elements that Vu argues needs to be present for developmental policies to be pursued. First, states need to possess developmental structures and second, they need to perform (or attempt to perform) developmental roles (Vu 2007, p.28). This effectively separates out the political will to follow developmental policies from the capacity to implement these policies. Vu highlights how at certain points the Indonesian state was in this position of attempting to pursue developmental roles without having developmental structures, so by this definition and at this point in time, Indonesia would be a developmental state – but a failing one. This definition is useful as it allows for failure, makes the definition of developmental states less tautological and also emphasises the significance of this driving communal goal – often associated with nationalism (Woo-Cummings 1999, Johnson 1999). Yet, a full exploration of developmental states also needs to engage with the developmental structures utilised to perform as a successful developmental state. These two elements, structures and developmental commitment are required together.


In relation to ESID’s research this separation of structures and roles is significant. For what Vu discusses as structures can basically be seen as the capacity of the state to be effective – in that it can enact and achieve the aims it sets. However, this effectiveness does not necessarily translate into a developmental state – let alone an inclusive developmental state, without being oriented toward such ends. However the establishment of effective states is seen as a prerequisite for the development of a developmental state (Leftwich 2008, p.12). As Vu highlights, with the example of Indonesia, without state capacity attempts to perform developmental roles will flounder (2007).


Another element utilised to identify developmental states is their ability to ‘upgrade’. Doner, Ritchie and Slater highlight this ability to “upgrade from lower value to higher value economic activities” as the key element which marked out South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan as developmental states, as opposed to the four high-growth countries of the Association of South Asian Nations namely; Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia (2005, p.328). Evans also contends that the aims of developmental states are to occupy better niches higher up in the global division of labour hierarchy (1995, pp.7-8) Whilst this definition can be seen as useful in highlighting the significant gains from upgrading, it narrows the definition of the developmental state. Countries such as Botswana, despite their growth, would not be seen to be developmental by this definition, as they have struggled to diversify the economy let alone ‘upgrade’ (Taylor 2005, p.54).


The usage of the term developmental states remains predominately associated with East Asian states which have been successful in achieving prolonged high rates of growth. There has, however, been interest in the usefulness of the developmental state approach for other regions, perhaps Africa in particular (Meyns and Musamba 2010, p.7). The narrow regional focus of developmental states is contested in a number of ways; Mkandawire contends that there were developmentally focused states in Africa in the immediate post colonial period (Mkandawire 2001) and other scholars have identified states that have been patrimonial developmental at certain times (Kelsall and Booth, 2010). There are also other states outside of East Asia that are regularly identified as developmental states – perhaps most prominently, Botswana. However, the term remains profoundly associated with the East Asian post World War Two experience.


Therefore, and despite Botswana’s frequent identification as a developmental state, the aim of Mkandawire’s article is to refute the assumption that African states are not capable of being developmental. This brings us to the heart of one of the major issues of this review which considers the discussion on the ‘transferability’ of the developmental states’ lessons outside of East Asia. There is a considerable ongoing debate about the usefulness of the ‘east Asian model’ being utilised in other contexts – which will be discussed below. In addition to this examination of the usefulness of the developmental state format as traditionally associated with the pattern of development associated with East Asia and focused on economic growth – albeit with considerable social gains – for other states within the contemporary context. Is an emerging literature examining not this model of the developmental state, but suggesting other models of a developmental state more suited to contemporary circumstances and which focus more explicitly on development as a social phenomenon rather than as a purely economic one (Evans, 2010; 2011; Sand brook et al. 2007). These are of particular interest given ESIDs focus on inclusive development.


Which states are developmental?


Alongside and intertwined with discussions about what defines a developmental state are debates and disagreements about which states are included within the bracket of developmental states definition. A section of the literature is precisely concerned with laying out why particular states (particularly some African states) fit or do not fit the developmental state model (Gyimah-Boadi, 2009 [Ghana]; Taylor, 2005 [Botswana]; Meynes, 2010 [Botswana]; Meisenhelder, 1997 [Mauritius]; Lockwood, 2005; [Botswana, Uganda, Ghana, Tanzania, Mosambique]; Howell 2006 [China]). The table below lays out how different states or groups of states have been discussed within the developmental state literature and in relation to the developmental state model. The table reflects an attempt to clearly lay down how the literature understands particular states or groups of states in relation to the concept of the developmental state. Whilst this review concentrates on states there is an expanding literature on the sub-national developmental state – some of the regions identified are not strictly speaking states (or at least their statehood is debated) these areas have been entered into the states column but are in brackets.8 In addition the developmental nature of the state is not, a static status, and some states may be developmental for a limited or transitory period. Some states have therefore been identified as developmental during a discrete era and this is denoted in the table by giving the dates in brackets (Fritz and Menocal, 2007).


 Table 1 – Breakdown of states discussed as developmental



















Japan, South Korea, (Taiwan)




The Big Three Japan is often seen as the first developmental state, both in terms of its prior uptake of ‘developmental state attributes and having been the first state to which the label was applied (Johnson 1982). Despite variations between the three, the similarities of South Korea and Taiwan’s strategies to each other and to Japan means that they are often seen to cohere as a group and are often seen as the model developmental states.





-Industrial based economy

– High economic -growth rates

– Professional bureaucracy

– Autonomous state bureaucracy





Johnson 1982; Amsden 1989; Wade 1990;

Woo-Cumings, 1999;

Chang 2006




Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines




South Asian Developmental States These states also achieved significant economic growth around the same period as ‘The Big Three’. However their growth levels were not quite so high and they were seen to have a less autonomous state bureaucracy and seen by some to have more issues with corruption – although not to have become predatory states.





-Economic growth more FDI9 based than the Northeast Asian ‘Big Three’.

– Good economic growth rates

– Less autonomous bureaucracy than ‘The Big Three’.





Chang 2006; Doner, Ritchie and Slater 2005; Hayashi 2010; Jomo 2004;







Botswana is frequently held up as an example of an African developmental state. What perhaps marks Botswana out more starkly however is the natural resource based economy on which this developmental state has been built.





-Good economic growth rates

– Natural resource based economy

– Democratic (de facto one party state)




Mbabazi and Taylor, 2005; Meyns, 2010.






Costa Rica





Social Democratic Developmental States These are states which have achieved a reasonable level of economic growth but have also invested heavily in reducing poverty and social exclusion. They are also democratic and have a fairly open political space.





-Reasonable economic growth rates

– Democratic

– State investment in social protection, health and education





Sandbrook et al. 2007




Côte d’Ivoire [1960-1975]

Malawi [1964-78]

Kenya [1965-75]

Tanzania [1967-1978]

Rwanda [2000-2010




Developmental PatrimonialismThese states have been identified as continuing to operate in a patrimonial manner but through centralised rents and a civil service that is to some extent autonomous to have achieved some significant developmental outcomes. The gains obtained during these periods have however not been sustained.





–          Good growth rates

–          Patrimonialism

– Centralised Rents

– Developmental   Outcomes

– Relatively autonomous Civil Servic





Kelsall and Booth 2010.




Ethiopia, South Africa




Aspirational Developmental States Key political actors in both South Africa (the ANC) and Ethiopia (the president) have publically advanced the case for pursing a developmental state strategy. Whether and how this project will progress is unknown.





– Political actors stating an intention to create a developmental state.





New Business Ethiopia, 2011; Meyns and Musamba 2010; Edigheji 2011








China’s recent impressive economic success has led a number of scholars to see it as having been in line with the developmental state model since the mid 1980s (Evans 2011).





Good growth rates

– State investment in Infrastructure, Education and Health

– Sustained Economic Growth





Jian-xing and De-jin, 2010; Howell 2006, (cf.White 1988b)







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