State capacity and the construction of pro-poor welfare states in the ‘developing’ world

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Jeremy Seekings
Much of the literature on state capacity across the ‘developing’ world or global South focuses on what states cannot do (or even on what it is imagined that they cannot do), with much less attention paid to what they can do, and in fact do. The history of welfare state-building across the global South is a surprising story of what states can do, sometimes through the use of intermediary agents: Teachers teach children and adolescents, doctors and nurses immunise infants and attend to births, and – in a growing number of cases – state agencies administer directly or oversee payments in cash or kind to the poor. States with apparently limited capacity to function as ‘developmental’ states nonetheless can become nascent welfare states. The history of cash transfers in the global South suggests that ‘state capacity’ has rarely been a constraint on the expansion of programmes, in part because states can harness the capacity of agents and employ new technologies. Even when fraud and corruption appear to be widespread, their scale is often small in comparison to the resources being distributed to the poor. The case of cash transfers suggests that ‘state capacity’ can expand in response to the expanded delivery of public (or semi-public) services.
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