Patrimonialism is understood to describe systems in which personal relationships are mediated through and maintained by personal connections between leaders and subjects. Jobs go to members of your family or tribe for instance, in order to spread prosperity within the group and to keep them on your side. There is an element of reciprocity in this – support can be withdrawn by either patron or client at any time. Patrimonialism can cement social bonds in smaller settings, but can distort power and aid corruption in large institutions.
Patrimonialism is often contrasted with rational-legal authority, where impersonal bureaucratic logic is the defining characteristic of the political system. This is an ideal state, which is in practice never achieved. The term “neo-patrimonialism” tends to be used to indicate that the system has a veneer of rational-legal authority on the surface, it has elections for example, but is actually run on patrimonial lines: you vote for your patron who promises to bring home the pork, and are subsequently rewarded.
Of course, all societies have a degree of patrimonialism in them, in some ways it is the cement the glues social groups together. But what is the effect of patrimonialism on economic development? Some scholars, such as Theobald, argue that a lack of development leads to patrimonialism – it is not possible to pay civil servants from the state treasury, as there is not a reliable revenue source so you rely on your supporters, who are not necessarily the most qualified. Englebert goes on to argue that patrimonialism leads to a lack of development; leaders need to resort to short-term measures to ensure support, such as paying people to vote for them out of the health budget, as institutional legitimacy is lacking.
However, the relationship with development could perhaps be due to the level of corruption in society, rather than the degree to which it is patrimonial. Or as Booth and Goloba argue, the direction the patrimonial state takes can be decided from above if the leadership governs under an appropriate ideological framework. In Rwanda for instance, they argue that the ruling elite has, through a system of state-run monopolies, acquired an interest in the long-run development of society. If society as a whole is made more prosperous through the use of these enterprises to kick-start capitalism, there is no need for short-term measures through corrupt networks. Anti-corruption efforts from the top down support this.
Is this still patrimonialism though? If jobs are awarded to the best people, even outsiders, and profits are shared throughout society generally, where is the direct reciprocal relationship between the ruling class and the people?
Pitcher, M. Moran and M. Johnston, “Rethinking Patrimonialism and Neo-patrimonialism in Africa”, African Studies Review 52:1, April 2009, 125-156
David Booth and Frederick Gulooba-Mutebi, ‘Developmental Patrimonialism? The Case of Rwanda, African Affairs, 111/444, 2012, pp.379-403