Today, ordinary people in villages and towns in many parts of Asia enjoy more freedom, choice and power than ever before. This is in large part due to the expansion of markets and elections to encompass growing numbers of consumers and citizens, along with the devolution of state power into local hands.
Against this backdrop, considerable interest has focused on the role of “local elites” in Asia: “bosses and dynasties” in the Philippines, “goondas” in India, “village emperors and local mandarins” in Viet Nam and PRC. By maintaining monopolistic, authoritarian control over markets, state resources and votes, these local elites are seen to be blocking the emancipatory effects of globalization, democracy and decentralization.
This focus on local elites as readily identifiable bad guys has led to a disavowal of the undesirable effects of economic trends and development policies. The assumption remains that that these policies and programs improve—rather than worsen—ordinary people’s lives across the world.
Many observers tend to portray local elites as organic embodiments of “backwardness” or “traditionalism” of Asian societies. They enjoy authority based on their mastery of the cultural milieu, their position in traditional social hierarchies and by providing patronage and protection to local constituencies. Local citizens legitimize their power by voting them into public office.
As (national) government agencies and multilateral institutions attempt to promote local development schemes across Asia, they find themselves forced to deal with these local state officials. Such initiatives then become entangled in electoral exigencies and social pressures, and become difficult, if not impossible, to implement. “Progress” devolves into “patronage” and the locals, it appears, have no one to blame but themselves.
This viewpoint assumes that the emergence and entrenchment of local monopolistic power in Asia and in the developing world is somehow divorced from the processes of economic development. Yet as localities are drawn into markets, these very processes have inevitably generated opportunities for the concentration of capital and power.
The expansion of markets allows for the acquisition of large landholdings, the exploitation of natural resources through concessions and licenses, private control over agricultural processing, and involvement in local construction, commerce and public utilities. Amassing local concentrations of capital invariably requires access to state resources and regulatory powers, and those with privileged access to the state enjoy enormous advantages from the outset.
“Free” elections do not necessarily disrupt this dynamic. In fact, tenants, wage labourers, employees and other dependents can become locked-in electorates for their landlords and/or employers who may also be their mayors and village headmen. Concentrations of capital offer enhanced opportunities for state capture.
It is therefore not “traditional” Asian societies that produce local bosses, dynasties and warlords; it is the opportunities for the concentration of wealth and power opened up by markets and states. Local elites cannot simply be viewed as obstacles to development—they are key by-products and beneficiaries of development themselves.
How then can development policies be crafted which will not simply reinforce the economic empires and political machines of local elites? One much-celebrated approach is community-driven development (CDD). These programmes are designed to encourage local communities to participate in the allocation, design and implementation of development projects. Institutions like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have supported large-scale CDD programs in Indonesia and the Philippines
However, such programs have been shown to have limited transformative potential. To promote “growth with equity”, multilateral institutions need to promote development policies which help create countervailing power against local elites who have entrenched themselves across Asia. This means paying closer attention to local monopolies and monopsonies, oligopolies and cartels enabled and sustained across the region by the very processes that ought to disband them.