Indonesia’s State-Led Development: Custodian of the National Interest, or Boondoggle?

industry-4612432_1920Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo once likened the work of economists to that of plumbers – tinkering and adjusting as necessary as they engage with the details of economic policy-making. The implication in this comparison is that economists generally understand economic systems and behaviour how the pipes come together – and that the main work of the discipline is to fiddle with these components – adjusting the pressure, replacing valves – to see what works and what doesn’t.

A critique of this approach was compiled by Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven here. The primary criticism is that the basic premise is flawed – we do not, in fact, have a very complete understanding of how the pipes come together. Often, we don’t even know where they are. The institutional architecture that determines economic outcomes can vary widely from one country to the next. With so much variation at the systemic-level the utility of “tinkering” at the margins is questionable.

This blog series will interrogate some of the prevailing assumptions about the relationship between state and capital and look at why and in what ways some economies are deeply intertwined with the state. The structural conditions that actually exist in developing economies are often ignored in mainstream economic analyses – the prescription for countries with large state-owned sectors is usually some combination of more market liberalization, less protectionism, better enforcement of property rights. This ignores why the economy is structured that way in the first place, and therefore such prescriptions risk being disconnected from the reality on the ground, and thus ineffective.

Indonesia’s economic trajectory helps to illustrate this point. Despite a long history of sometimes violent anti-communist sentiment, massive portions of the economy are either partially or directly controlled by state-owned enterprises. According to Kyunghoon Kim in 2016 there were148 SOEs in Indonesia, and their total assets were equivalent to 56.9% of the country’s GDP.This includes the state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina, three of the four largest banks, the state-owned electric utility PLN which owns the entire national grid, airport operators Angkasa Pura I and II which operate every major commercial airport, the telecom giant PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia and the largest toll road operator Jasa Marga, to name just a few. Read More »

Property rights and transaction costs in developing countries: A political settlement perspective

Photo by Dennis Jarvis. Louisbourg Lighthouse.

Transaction costs due to distributional conflicts, political settlements, and weak enforcement capacity have important implications for the implementation of property rights in developing countries. While critical analysis of these factors is missing in the mainstream economics approach to property rights, it is obvious that incorporating such analysis will be crucial in designing policies to minimize transaction costs that hinder an efficient functioning of property rights. Specifically, there is a need for an alignment of interests among powerful political and economic interests if property rights are to be more efficient at reducing transaction costs. 

A fundamental limitation of contemporary property rights theory is its inability to incorporate factors that might reduce property rights from solving transaction costs, particularly in developing countries. This piece reviews the mainstream explanation of the relationship between property rights and transaction costs and then evaluates factors that can inhibit property rights from reducing relevant transaction costs, which include distributional conflicts, costly enforcement capacity, political settlement, and measurement problems. Major emphasis is placed on social conflicts and organization of power which are missing from the conventional analysis of property rights.

In this respect, the political settlements framework developed by SOAS economist Mushtaq Khan can enrich our understanding of the operations of property rights in developing countries. Khan (2018) defines political settlements as “social orders characterised by distributions of organizational power that together with specific formal and informal institutions effectively achieve at least the minimum requirements of political and economic sustainability for that society”. In short, political settlement means the distribution of power among different groups.Read More »

Rethinking the Failures of Mining Industrialisation in the African Periphery

The remains of one of SOMINKI’s industrial gold mines (author photo).

The World Bank interpreted the failure of mineral extraction to drive structural transformation in the early decades of African Independence as due to badly managed state-owned enterprises (SOEs), excessive state intervention in the economy, and government corruption. To right these wrongs, since the 1980s, the Bank has loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to the governments of mineral-rich (and mostly low-income) African countries to privatise and liberalise their mining sectors. Spurred on by the most recent commodity super-cycle beginning in the late 1990s, foreign direct investment poured in, and for many low-income African countries today, “the mining sector represents one of the most crucial sources of investment and income in their economies” (Farole and Winkler 2014: 177). A major theoretical assumption underpinning this process has been a belief in the superior expertise and efficiency of experienced transnational corporations (TNCs) compared to corrupt and mismanaged SOEs. In this post, I unpack and question the validity of this assumption, by drawing on some of the findings from my doctoral thesis on mining reindustrialisation in South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).     Read More »

Financialising migration? Remittances, algorithms and digital finance

photo-1492940664705-726225a992a9.jpegHow are things “datafied?” This blog post aims to answer this question by offering a critical reflection on a wide range of recent initiatives that attempt to “datafy” remittances, i.e. leverage migrants’ and recipients’ money as a means to facilitate access to digital financial products and services for individuals and households, with a specific focus on Ghana. A handful of scholars have started to critically assess the political economy of the “financialisation of remittances”, calling into question an agenda that is animated not by the needs of migrant men and women but rather the political and financial concerns of a broad coalition of global and national actors relating to the socio-spatial expansion of markets (Datta, 2012; Cross,  2015; Kunz, 2013; Hudson, 2008; Zapata, 2018). Here, I want to focus on the yet neglected aspect of the construction of these remittance markets, rather than treating financialization as “an explanation in and of itself” (Fields, 2018:119).

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Does one size fit all when it comes to financial inclusion? Scrutinising the effects of class, race, gender, and age

524195139_1c8a3ec97c_b.jpgIn recent decades, market-based solutions such as financial inclusion have become more popular in developed countries to reduce inequalities and boost wealth and incomes of the poor. There is no better example of this than the recent thrust of low-income families, women, ethnic minorities, and the young into the subprime mortgage lending expansion in the USA since the early 2000s. Higher access to formal loans for these households was argued to enable them to climb the magical ladder of homeownership and achieve their American Dream. But as we know, the picture didn’t turn out to be quite so rosy.

10 years since the Great Recession, many families are not seeing recovery as the impact of the crisis was substantially harsher for the subprime borrowers (Young 2010; Henry, Reese, and Torres 2013). Financial inclusion in the subprime period turned out to be predatory. In this post, I explore how things went wrong when policy makers failed to account for the institutional conditions in the US economy, which led to dramatically different experiences of financial inclusion across social classes, gender, race, and generations.Read More »

From Addis to Davos: International Development Finance gets Conspicuous


The theme of the 2018 World Economic Forum was, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Its six richest attendees each boasted an estimated net worth of $5.2 billion or more, or the same amount as the total burden of Somalia’s outstanding debt, which, amid the splendor of the event, Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khayre  met with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde to discuss clearing. In this era of extreme global inequality, it is estimated that the United Nations agenda of seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) known as Agenda 2030, will require 4.5 trillion dollars of investment per year to be realized, or more than twice the amount expected to be available from traditional official development assistance (ODA) alone. Due to the increasing concentration of private wealth in the global economy, discussions around development finance have focused on private sector engagement, rather than more traditional, ODA from predominantly Western donor governments and multilateral institutions.Read More »

The Case Against the Universal Liberalisation Model for Economic Growth


For years, policy-makers have used the United Nations’ country classification, based on per capita gross national income, as the measurement of their country’s development. The aspiration to move up the scale assumes that: 1) economic growth is the international standard measurement of development; and 2) the more one produces, the better one’s quality of life will be. The history of political movements and economic policies has witnessed both successful and failed attempts to move up the scale. The countries that have accelerated their economic growth have been celebrated worldwide and the general perception is that the people in these countries now enjoy a more resourceful life. This attitude towards economic growth has created a presumption that pro-growth policies observed in more developed countries and actively promoted by international institutions could be applicable in other developing countries. Can this classification ever be misleading?Read More »

“Private Property” and the Dakota Access Pipeline


Since the announcement of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in 2014, which was planned by Energy Transfer Partners for the transport and access of the Bakken oil fields, it has gained traction as a controversial initiative because of its environmental impact, the threat it poses to water supply and its effect on Native American sacred lands. Since August 2016, a group of protestors have been organizing on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation petitioning against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and protesting at the actual site of the pipeline (see this New York Times article). While the violence surrounding the pipeline is within itself shocking, the media coverage has been extremely polarized on the issue. Often falling along partisan lines, “liberal” news sources oppose the pipeline on humanitarian grounds and “conservative” sources support it, but both forms of media glean their conclusions about the pipeline from uncritical understandings of the conflict. Both sources ignore that, at the heart of the issue, are issues surrounding what private property is and the consequences of our chosen definition. Instead of taking for granted colloquial definitions of property we can see the underlying distributional inequality inherent to the pipeline by critically assessing how property and law interact.Read More »