default Political Settlements

Author: Edwards Law and Adrian Leftwich
Institution: Developmental Leadership Program, University of Birmingham
Publication Date: October 2014
Keywords: Political settlements, conflict, governance, peace process, peace-building


Efforts to improve aid effectiveness have often missed the underlying political dynamics that prevent real change. There is growing recognition that political settlements involving powerful actors can be a significant factor in determining the success or failure of development assistance.

This brief report provides a concise introduction to the concept of the political settlement. It explains what this concept means, why it is important, and what policy implications follow from it. This brief will be of interest to development scholars, donor policy-makers, and actors engaged in delivering assistance at an operational level in fragile and conflict-affected areas.

Key Issues:

The concept of ‘political settlement’ is defined in different ways in the literature. The authors propose a general definition of the concept: “the informal and formal processes, agreements, and practices that help consolidate politics, rather than violence, as a means for dealing with disagreements about interests, ideas and the distribution and use of power” (P. 1).

As this policy brief highlights, political settlements are important because they make it possible to peacefully shape local and domestic institutions and policies that have an impact on political stability and can promote positive development outcomes (p. 2). A focus on political settlements has a number of key policy and operational implications for donors (p. 3):

• National and sub-national leaders, elites and their followers are the primary agents of contextually-appropriate solutions to collective-action development challenges.

• In fragile and conflict-affected contexts, a political settlements approach can help outside actors to identify ways of mitigating violent conflict by focusing attention on the inclusion of key actors in peace-building deals and negotiations.

• Political settlement analysis is a vital complement to the prevailing technical, managerial and administrative approaches to development assistance. This analysis involves mapping key actors, identifying their interests, and understanding the issues which shape their interaction with each other and their supporters.

• It may not be helpful for donors to promote direct changes to formal, state-level institutions and policies that do not promote development outcomes. Rather, outside actors need to think more realistically about how to work in politically-astute ways with local and domestic actors, groups and political coalitions that can shape agreements and institutions that are appropriate to their contexts.

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