INCLUDE Platform
Albert Gonzalez Farran/UN Photo Albert Gonzalez Farran/UN Photo

Strategic actors

The ‘politics’ of implementing inclusive development policies1

Effectively implementing reforms to make development policies in Africa more inclusive is often not simply a matter of formulating the right policies. Rather, it is about reaching actors with political power or capacity and encouraging them to implement those policies. Achieving structural change is a daunting task as those in power are likely to benefit from the status quo or come up against institutional barriers. A better understanding of the underlying power structures, motives and incentives that prevent inclusive development policies from being implemented is thus crucial for these policies to be effective.

Despite the high economic growth in Africa over the past decade, large groups of people remain excluded from this greater prosperity. Social indicators have shown only modest and uneven improvement, unemployment remains high, especially among the young, and income inequality within countries has widened.2 The failure to address these inequalities structurally poses a risk for Africa’s long-term sustainability and undermines social cohesion. Awareness of this failure has led international and national development actors to focus more strongly on formulating policies that make development more inclusive. However, more often than not, these policies are not actually implemented. This is often not primarily due to a lack of funding and/or capacity, but to resistance to structural change among political and/or business elites. Effectively implementing reform policies therefore means reaching strategic actors with the power and capacity to overcome the many political and institutional obstacles to inclusive policies. It means encouraging initially ‘unwilling’ actors to push for these policies, despite their interest in maintaining the status quo, and about empowering ‘willing’ actors who do not yet possess the political influence to do so.

The Knowledge Platform on Inclusive Development Policies (INCLUDE) is therefore interested in identifying the underlying power structures and incentive systems that perpetuate structural inequalities and that explain the systematic failure of sound policies to reverse this situation to be implemented effectively. INCLUDE aims to identify the key strategic actors in the seven partner countries in Sub-Saharan Africa3 and elsewhere, and the role they can play in nudging ‘unwilling’ authorities towards carrying out effective reforms in key policy areas.

Inclusive development rather than growth

The concept of inclusive development, which is central to INCLUDE’s work, has increasingly found its way into development discourse and has become a new buzzword in an already richly endowed development jargon. It has been used at international conferences and in major development reports, research programmes, national vision documents produced by African countries and regional policy documents.4 Yet, this prevalence has so far not been accompanied by conceptual clarity. Inclusive development clearly remains a ‘concept under construction’ and there is as yet no one authoritative definition. It is often poorly differentiated from concepts that have been in circulation for a longer period of time, like sustainable development, human development, and pro-poor growth. More importantly, inclusive development is often used interchangeably with inclusive growth, despite their strictly different meanings.

Having a clear and distinct definition of the concept is however crucially important. While inclusive growth refers to economic growth that is accompanied by lower income inequality, inclusive development also takes account of dimensions of wellbeing beyond income, like education and health. The essence of inclusive development is that it implies fighting against inequality and not just poverty. And it embraces both the income-related and social and political inequalities that determine people’s opportunities and wellbeing.5 There is a tendency among political elites to prefer the concept of inclusive growth to that of inclusive development, as striving for the former does not challenge existing power structures.6 For example, two NWO/WOTRO-funded research projects investigated how economic inequality is intrinsically intertwined with social, cultural and political exclusion, one focusing on the Batwa in Rwanda and the other on sex workers in Kenya and Ethiopia. If inclusive reform policies are to be implemented effectively, it is vitally important to acknowledge how economic and non-economic inequalities are interrelated, and the incentives and motives that cause them to persist.

Politics rather than policies

The politics of policy-making can make or break the advance towards inclusive development. This implies that research should focus on the political dimensions of the process of implementing structural reform policies, rather than solely on the technical aspects of policy and capacity. The glaring question is no longer how authorities can make government budgets and policies more inclusive, but why they do not do so. More often than not, political elites have a clear stake in maintaining the status quo. For example, reforms to tackle the negative effects of informal economic activities (in terms of miss outs in taxes, poor working conditions, and the lack of social protection) prove difficult to implement, as political authorities often have a stake in these activities as well. Moreover, global economic forces also present an obstacle to structural reforms, for example tax system reform or employment measures.

Three policy areas

INCLUDE is interested in three critical policy areas as a focus for research. These areas currently act as drivers of inequality but could, through strategic action, be transformed into triggers of inclusive development. The first is economic growth. There is a strong need for structural transformation in African economies. Countries need to diversify their economies if they are to offer economic and social opportunities to a growing and increasingly young population. This means strengthening opportunities in the primary sector while fostering industrial development and achieving a structural shift to high value products and services. The second policy area is territorial development and spatial differentiation. The geographical distribution of income and poverty is skewed in many African countries. There are persistent concentrations of poor people in specific regions and sectors, even in countries with high growth. The third policy area is the quality of governance. A substantial number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially those in conflict or post-conflict situations, live outside the protection of the law and have very limited ability to influence institutions, legal reforms and socioeconomic policies. This situation especially affects marginal groups like women, the ultra-poor and minorities, and perpetuates national and local political institutions that are not transparent or accountable to their citizens. For inclusive development to be achieved, such governance landscapes need to be structurally transformed.

Strategic actors rather than ‘the usual suspects’

In identifying strategic actors for inclusive development in these three policy areas, it is crucially important to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’, i.e. central government (especially elites) and traditional civil society actors (with a particular focus on NGOs). INCLUDE takes a broader perspective that also considers institutions and actors operating within wider ‘political society’ (like parliaments, political parties, and oversight bodies), other realms of civil society (like trade unions, consumer organisations, social movements and youth organisations), the increasingly vocal local government sector, the ‘development-oriented’ parts of the private sector (both formal and informal), and ‘non-traditional actors’ (including the informal sector, religious movements, the armed forces, insurgents and criminal organizations).

In Senegal, for instance, a multi-actor coalition of citizens and activists was able to prevent the unconstitutional re-election of the president for a third term. A new youth movement (called ‘Y en a Marre’, which means ‘Fed Up’) played a key role in mobilizing the ‘voice of the street’ and ensuring a democratic transition. Yet while this new movement enjoys high levels of legitimacy (certainly compared to traditional civil society), it is unclear how this leverage can be translated into effective action. Both the youth movement and other actors (including donor agencies) seem at a loss in devising appropriate intervention and support strategies. One of INCLUDE’s primary focuses is therefore to identify such ‘unconventional’ actors and influence their strategies. In this respect, one of the research groups examines the role of informal and formal workers’ organizations in  implementing inclusive employment and social protection policies in Ghana and Benin. Two other research projects focus on the role of partnerships as strategic actors, one examining their ability to transform cocoa value chains in Ghana and the other pushing for inclusive business models in five East African countries.

How can strategic actors be analyzed: institutions versus agency?

Strategic actors can be considered from two perspectives. The first, an institutional perspective, coincides with the traditional (Western-dominated) governance approach, which sees a state’s strength – and its ability to promote inclusive development – as a function of the capacity of its formal institutions.7 Research carried out from this perspective focuses on the question of what institutions need to be strengthened to achieve inclusive development in key policy areas. The second, agency perspective, on the other hand, implies a more gradual approach to development that is less attached to a Western blueprint. It sheds light on how and why change happens, or does not happen. It tries to grasp the dynamic power connections between different actors to deduce which of them are strategic in a certain change process. This perspective by no means excludes or diminishes the necessity or value of institutions, but it allows the analysis to go beyond the formal aspects of institutions and to the incentives that drive agents’ behavior.8

While most research adopts either an institutional or agency perspective, INCLUDE believes that both perspectives are important in understanding structural change. The challenge, therefore, when analysing strategic actors, is not to choose between the two perspectives, but to interweave them. That means paying attention not only to dominant institutions and actors, their ability to exercise leverage on policy processes, agents’ goals and tactics and their motives for doing so, but also to the strategies they adopt to influence state authorities.

What type of outcomes?

Such political economic analyses of inclusive development processes can produce different types of outcomes.9 Some research is primarily oriented towards developing middle-range theories, and aims to produce knowledge that can inform evidence-based policies and interventions by donors, governments in development countries and civil society actors. Other research does not aim to develop theory and is more action-oriented. It produces knowledge that is primarily demand-driven and helps to understand and improve concrete situations. Both outcomes are important in making development policy in Africa more inclusive. INCLUDE therefore calls for a sound balance between both types of research.

Knowledge for whom?

Stakeholders include development practitioners (donors and non-donors) working in partner countries and elsewhere, who can operate as strategic actors or are seen as actors with an interest in the research. These can be national, regional and local government officials and institutions, the business community, civil society organizations and other non-traditional actors. INCLUDE’s aim is to bring together African, Dutch and other international stakeholders and act as a ‘broker’ between them, so as to translate academic findings into inclusive policy practice. With a wide variety of content – updates from research consortia, expert opinions, case studies and stakeholder mappings – the Knowledge Platform aims to provide more thorough knowledge on how to identify and call upon strategic actors that are in the position to foster structural change and make development policies more inclusive.


  1. 1. This article is a shortened version of the Concept Note ‘Strategic actors for the implementation of inclusive development policies’, prepared by ECDPM and is also based on the Call for Proposals ‘Strategic Actors for Inclusive Development’, prepared by NWO-WOTRO. It was prepared by the Secretariat of INCLUDE.
  2. 2. UNECA (2013) Overview of economic and social conditions in Africa 2012, Meeting of the Committee of Experts of the Sixth Joint Annual Meetings of the ECA Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, available here.
  3. 3. Rwanda, Benin, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique. For more specific country information, see here.
  4. 4. See for instance the South Africa National Development Plan 2030, Rwanda’s Vision 2020, Ethiopia’s National Growth and Transformation Plan, Mozambique’s Agenda 2025 or Uganda’s National Development Plan 2010-2014. For more details on the social focus of African discourses on inclusive development see Adésina, J.O. (2007) In Search of Inclusive Development Social Policy in sub-Saharan Africa. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. 5. See The Broker’s Inequality Dossier for a comprehensive international debate on inequality.
  6. 6. For example, in its outcome report, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, the intergovernmental working group that has formulated proposals for a new development agenda to succeed the MDGs, has chosen the concept of ‘inclusive growth’ despite calls from civil society and academics to speak of ‘inclusive development’.
  7. 7. See UNDP and World Bank literature on public sector reform. See also Lemay-Hébert, N. (2012), ‘Rethinking the institutional approach to statebuilding’, International Development Department (IDD), University of Birmingham, Policy Brief 06/12. Available here(pdf).
  8. 8. Leftwich A. (2009), ‘Bringing Agency Back In: Politics and Human Agency in Building Institutions and States’, Development Leadership Programme (DLP) research paper 6, available here; and Leftwich A. (2010), ‘Beyond Institutions: Rethinking the Role of Leaders, Elites and Coalitions in the Institutional Formation of Development States and Strategies’, Forum for Development Studies, Vol 37/1, pp. 93-111, available here.
  9. 9. See Concept Note ‘Strategic actors for the implementation of inclusive development policies’ for an overview of existing research.

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