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Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP)

Political Economy of Public Policy

Course Code:
P527
Unit value:

About this Module

Technical specialists (researchers, development workers, even policy advisors) often get frustrated that policies that are actually adopted and/or implemented deviate far from their technical recommendations. In economics, this is often viewed as “state failure”: the state does not do what economists would like it to do to promote market development and efficiency. This module explores the interactions between politics and policy making, seeking to understand actual policies as the outcome of interaction between rational politicians and the people and groups who help them acquire and retain power.

It begins with a review of “new political economy” theory as developed in, and applied to, high income democratic states. It shows that, far from being a “bad thing”, political processes are essential to resolve struggles over the distribution of resources and the direction of policy, issues that cannot be resolved by resort to purely technocratic or objective criteria. Later units consider the interactions between politics and policy making in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, East and South Asia. These units examine how and why politics and policy making in these regions diverge from the models presented for high income democratic states. An overarching question running through the module is how countries transition from political systems based on patron-client politics to systems where politics are more policy-based. Each of the regional units begins by examining how politics have shaped recent broad development experience, then explores the specific case of agricultural policy to enable some comparison across regions and with the OECD states considered in the first part. Finally, the module considers the politics of international policy making, examining international negotiations on agricultural trade and on carbon emissions.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

On successful completion of the module students will be able

  • To appreciate the often messy process by which policies are made
  • To explain and critique rational choice models of policy making as developed for high income democratic states
  • To understand how and why politics and policy making in selected developing regions diverge from the models presented for high income democratic states
  • To understand the factors underpinning patron-client politics and what it might take to overturn these
  • To critically assess the relationships between rents, rent-seeking and economic growth
  • To appreciate the political determinants of agricultural policies in different regions of the world
  • To understand how political considerations shape the outcomes of international policy negotiations.

Scope and syllabus

The module is broadly structured in three parts.

Part I: The first five units introduce political economy as a subject, present a generic political economy model that can be applied across contexts, then explore in more detail so-called “new political economy” models of politics and policy making as developed in, and applied to, high income democratic states. These investigate the relationship between voters and politicians, the role of interest groups and the semi-independent role of the bureaucracy in policy implementation. Particular applications of these models to agricultural policy making in the EU and US are examined.

Part II: Four regional units consider the interactions between politics and policy making in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, East and South Asia. They examine issues such as: the so-called neo-patrimonial nature of states in Sub-Saharan Africa and the phenomenon of “urban bias”; the persistence of inequality in Latin America, why the return to democratic politics did not immediately lead to more pro-poor policies, and the processes that are now challenging the control of power by historic elites; why so-called “developmental states” in East Asia achieved impressive growth and poverty reduction despite the poor having no direct voice in policy making; and how growth is being achieved in South Asia despite high levels of corruption. As well as considering a particular regional storyline, each of the regional examines the specific case of agricultural policy to enable some comparison across regions and with the OECD states considered in the first part.


Part III: A final unit considers the politics of international policy making, examining international negotiations on agricultural trade and on carbon emissions.