IDE Research Columns


Development of Political Settlements Research on Sub-Saharan Africa


Development of Political Settlements Research on Sub-Saharan Africa

Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO

March 2023

As proposed by economist Mushtaq H. Khan, political settlements have widely been applied to political economy analyses of countries in sub-Saharan Africa (hereafter, Africa). By reviewing the original concept and causal mechanism of political settlements, this column suggests that several factors, which were excluded from the mechanism but nevertheless influence institutional outcomes, should be also considered to elucidate the development outcomes of African countries. Certain case studies that apply political settlements have seemingly shifted away from the causal mechanism of institutional outcomes at the country level, which was proposed in the original framework of political settlements by Khan. However, the latest development of the Political Settlements Dataset has revealed the potential to refocus on country-level outcomes and strengthen the causal mechanism.


The number of studies on African countries that employ the concept of “political settlements” has increased over the last decade (Khan 2018a, 637; Gray 2020, 1793). Khan (2010) defines a political settlement as “a combination of power and institutions that [are] mutually compatible and sustainable in terms of economic and political viability” (Khan 2010, 4). The areas covered by the research on political settlements have ranged from economic growth, poverty reduction, public policy, and corruption to conflict and violence. The proliferation of the research on political settlements can partially be explained by the interest and funding of western donors to enhance the impacts of their development assistance. The concept has contributed to the current understanding of divergent development trajectories of African countries (Behuria, Buur, and Gray 2017: Gray 2020). Specifically, the research on political settlements has drawn scholarly attention to the interactions between institutions and power in political and economic outcomes across developing countries, including Africa (Di John and Putzel 2009, 6)i.

However, despite (or due to) the popularity of political settlements in African studies, its concept and the manner of its interpretation and application to case studies have become divergent, which generates conceptual confusion among scholars (Behuria, Buur, and Gray 2017, 510). Thus, reviewing the original concept and its analytical framework as well as its application to African studies is warranted. Through this examination, this column intends to demonstrate how the causal mechanism of different development outcomes across African countries, as proposed in the original framework of political settlements, can be strengthened.

What is a Political Settlement?

A widely understood concept of political settlements in political economy research was introduced by Khan (2010). Drawing on the institutional analyses of the new institutional economics, his development of the framework was motivated by the following question: “Why do the same institutions work differently across developing countries?” For example, an industrial policy was successfully implemented in South Korea between the 1960s and the 1980s but not in other developing countries (Khan 2010). To address this inquiry, Khan (2010) focused on the political settlement of a country. The term pertains to situations in which institutions are compatible with the distribution of power in societies and in which the ruling coalition, including powerful political and economic actors, are satisfied with the benefits distributed by institutions. According to Khan (2010), political settlements in South Korea between the 1960s and 1980s exhibited these characteristics. He argued that this situation or type of political settlement maintains minimal levels of political stability and economic growth in the country (Tsubura 2022, 5).

The emphasis placed by Khan (2010) on the importance of political settlements to understand the effectiveness of institutions is reasonable. However, I contend that his argument can be further strengthened by considering other factors that influence institutional outcomes, such as the personal interests of national leaders, separately from the distribution of power in societies. In many African countries, executive power is highly concentrated in the hands of presidents. Thus, the types of views and interests inherent to national leaders and the manner in which they make decisions require an examination instead of simply assuming that they are determined by political settlements (Tsubura 2022).

African Studies Employing Political Settlements Purported by Khan

A range of case studies on Africa have employed the concept of Khan (2010) about political settlements. They can be categorized into three groups according to the characteristics of institutional outcomes under study (Tsubura 2022, 16–20). First, certain case studies analyze the economic growth or poverty reduction of one country or countries for comparison (e.g., Khan 2010; Gray 2018). For example, Gray (2018) examines the reasons for the dramatic decrease of poverty in Vietnam but not in Tanzania over the previous 30 years, though both countries were socialist after independence, shared similar experiences in market liberalization, and sustained high economic growth during the same period. Second, case studies investigate institutional outcomes in specific sectors or policies, or diverse institutional outcomes across sectors within a country (e.g., Kjær 2015; Whitfield and Therkilsden. 2015; Behuria and Goodfellow 2016; Usman 2019). For example, Kjær (2011) explores why the ruling elite maintained their support for the dairy sector but not the fisheries in Uganda. Finally, other case studies highlight specific political, economic, and social phenomena, such as corruption (e.g., Andreoni 2017) and urban development (e.g., Goodfellow 2014; Goodfellow 2017), in a country or countries for comparison. For example, Andreoni (2017) demonstrates how the anti-corruption approach of the Tanzanian government reflected the political settlement of the country. Although these studies are commonly interested in the influence of power dynamics on institutional outcomes, the manner in which they apply the political settlements of Khan (2010) significantly varies (Gray 2020, 1794). Interestingly, several studies analyze differences across sectors or regions within a country and shifts away from the original emphasis of Khan on differences across countries (e.g., Kjær 2015, Whitfield and Therkilsden 2011, Usman 2019, Abdulai and Hickey 2016). For example, Whitfield and Therkilsden (2011) found variations in the level of success of industrial policies across multiple sectors in Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda.

An Alternative Political Settlement by Tim Kelsall

Other scholars have also challenged Khan’s (2010) conceptualization of political settlements. Among those who view political settlements differently from Khan, Kelsall (2018a) presents an alternative concept of political settlements. Since then, Kelsall has been applying his concept of political settlements to a series of studies of African cities (Kelsall 2018a; Kelsall 2018b; Kelsall et al. 2021).

Furthermore, Schulz and Kelsall (2021) created a novel Political Settlements Dataset based on Kelsall’s (2018a) conceptualization of political settlements. Using the dataset, the authors found that the countries with the highest degrees of power concentration in the hands of top leadership tend to experience faster reduction of corruption and industrial growth compared with those at the lowest levels of concentration (Schulz and Kelsall 2021). This finding underpins the argument of Khan (2010) that the more centralized the power of the ruling coalition, the more effective the implementation of institutions. Despite disagreements on the conceptualization of political settlements (Khan 2018a; Khan 2018b; Kelsall 2018a), the Political Settlements Dataset developed by Schultz and Kelsall (2021) seemingly strengthens the original causal mechanism of Khan (2010) by enabling country-level and cross-national research on political settlements (Tsubura 2022, 20).


This column reviewed the original concept of political settlement and its application to African studies. Although such studies aimed to explaining diverse institutional outcomes across developing countries, I suggest that other factors that influence institutional outcomes should also be considered. Although a few case studies successfully explicated the development outcomes of African countries by applying political settlement, others diverged from the causal mechanism at the country level, as suggested by the original framework of Khan (2010). The newly created Political Settlements Dataset exhibited the potential to systematically analyze the relationship between the level of power concentration in the top leadership and institutional outcomes at the country level. Furthermore, this prospect may reinstate the question that motivated the development of the concept–Why do the same institutions work differently across developing countries?–to the center of the research on political settlement and strengthen its causal mechanism.

  1. Although scholars in political science, economics, and other disciplines provide various definitions of institutions and power, the former can broadly be understood as the “rules that define the right to do certain things or make decision of a particular type” (Khan 2010, 9), which includes public policies, and the latter can be defined as “the capacity of an individual or group to engage and survive in conflicts” (Khan 2010: 6).
Author’s Note

This column is mainly based on Tsubura, Machiko. 2022. “Political Settlements Research on Sub-Saharan Africa: A Conceptual Framework and Causal Mechanism.” IDE Discussion Paper no. 845.


Abdulai, Abdul-Gafaru, and Sam Hickey. 2016. “The Politics of Development under Competitive Clientelism: Insights from Ghana’s Education Sector.” African Affairs 115(458): 44–72.

Andreoni, Antonio. 2017. “Anti-Corruption in Tanzania: A Political Settlements Analysis.” ACE Working Paper no. 1.

Behuria, Pritish, Lars Buur, and Hazel Gray. 2017. “Studying Political Settlements in Africa.” African Affairs 116(464): 508–25.

Behuria, Pritish, and Tom Goodfellow. 2016. “The Political Settlement and ‘Deals Environment’ in Rwanda: Unpacking Two Decades of Economic Growth.” ESID Working Paper no. 57.

Di John, Jonathan, and James Putzel. 2009. “Political Settlements: Issues Paper.” Governance and Social Development Resource Centre.

Goodfellow, Tom. 2014. “Rwanda's Political Settlement and the Urban Transition: Expropriation, Construction and Taxation in Kigali.” Journal of Eastern African Studies 8(2): 311–29.

———2017. “Seeing Political Settlements through the City: A Framework for Comparative Analysis of Urban Transformation.” Development and Change 49(1): 119–222.

Gray, Hazel. 2018. Turbulence and Order in Economic Development: Institutions and Economic Transformation in Tanzania and Vietnam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———2020. “Understanding and Deploying the Political Settlement Framework in Africa.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Politics, edited by Nic Cheeseman, Rita Abrahamsen, Gilbert Khadiagala, Peace Medie, and Racel Riedl. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kelsall, Tim. 2018a. “Towards a Universal Political Settlement Concept: A Response to Mushtaq Khan.” African Affairs 117(469): 656–69.

——— 2018b. “Thinking and Working with Political Settlements: The Case of Tanzania.” ODI Working Paper no. 541.

Kelsall, Tim, Diana Mitlin, Seth Schindler, and Sam Hickey. 2021. “Politics, Systems and Domains: A Conceptual Framework for the African Cities Research Consortium.” ACRC Working Paper no. 2021-01.

Khan, Mushtaq H. 2010. “Political Settlements and the Governance of Growth-Enhancing Institutions.” Unpublished manuscript, last modified July 2010.

——— 2018a. “Political Settlements and the Analysis of Institutions.” African Affairs 117(469): 636–54.

———2018b. “Power, Pacts and Political Settlements: A Reply to Tim Kelsall.” African Affairs 117(469):670–94.

Kjær, Anne Mette. 2015. “Political Settlements and Productive Sector Policies: Understanding Sector Differences in Uganda.” World Development 68: 230–41.

Shulz, Nicolai, and Tim Kelsall. 2021. “The Political Settlements Dataset: An Introduction with Illustrative Applications.” ESID Working Paper no. 165.

Tsubura, Machiko. 2022. “Political Settlements Research on Sub-Saharan Africa: A Conceptual Framework and Causal Mechanism.” IDE Discussion Paper no. 845.

Usman, Zainab. 2019. “The Success and Failures of Economic Reform in Nigeria’s Post-Military Political Settlement.” African Affairs 119(474): 1–38.

Whitfield, Lindsay, and Ole Therkilsden. 2011. “What Drives States to Support the Development of Productive Sectors? Strategies Ruling Elites Pursue for Political Survival and their Political Implications.” DIIS Working Paper no. 2011:5.

Author’s Profile

Machiko Tsubura is an Overseas Research Fellow of IDE-JETRO and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her PhD in Development Studies from the University of Sussex. Her research interests include democracy, electoral and party politics, and governance in sub-Saharan Africa with a focus on Tanzania.

*Thumbnail photo: Dar es Salaam Business District Cityscape High Angle View with coastline (Jasmin Merdan / Moment / Getty Images)
** The views expressed in the columns are those of the author(s) and do not represent the views of IDE or the institutions with which the authors are affiliated.