Whither Emerging Welfare States? A Research Note

Whither Emerging Welfare States? A Research Note

Veerayooth Kanchoochat

Assistant Professor, GRIPS

State-building is evolving constantly and is laden with contentious and contingent processes. The current stage of welfare state-building poses formidable challenges to policymakers and researchers alike – but in fundamentally different ways. While policymakers should shift their attention from micro to macro level, researchers should do the opposite.

From the post-war period to the late 1980s, or what we may call the era of developmental state-building, only 13 countries could steer away from low-income to reach high-income level. The lion’s share of them had been stuck in the middle-income category, but have now been confronted with new sorts of opportunities and limitations. While the increasingly intense level of international competition has brought higher levels of vulnerability to their firms and workers, the domestic democratisation process has rationalised the demands for income redistribution and further public provision. What determines the success and failure of emerging welfare state-building? Compared to the previous project of developmental state-building, is this more attainable? These questions form my current research programme, from which I would like to share three preliminary findings here.

I. Exploring New Frameworks

First of all, when I began exploring the existing literature on welfare states, I found that it is based primarily on the Western European experience, and thereby hardly applicable to emerging economies. This is well reflected in the fact that most prominent welfare scholars now compete to explain varying patterns of welfare retrenchment among advanced industrialised countries – at a time when Asian countries have just started thinking about how to extend welfare provision effectively!

Fortunately, however, I then found the fledgling strand of research constructed on the previous scholarship about the developmental state, led by Peter Evans, whose very concept of ‘embedded autonomy’ defined the field. This group of researchers maintains that the insight into welfare state-building can be built upon the concept of embeddedness, albeit with a conceptual departure, starting with redefining the meaning of development from economic growth to human capabilities.

Compared to developmental state-building, the success and failure of emerging welfare states rest upon the more broad-based alliance, usually cross-class, that shapes the way the state apparatus is connected to ‘civil society’ organisations at the local level. While the developmental states of East Asian calibre required embeddedness between the state and leading business actors, the progress of emerging welfare states hinges on embeddedness between political parties and civil society. It demands institutionalised channels that link the disadvantaged with the policymaking arena and a programmatic agenda. Meanwhile, a civil society can provide continuous feedback loops for policy corrections, as well as functioning as a countervailing force to the deficits of representative democracy. Put together, I call this approach a ‘revisionist embeddedness’ account and summarise it in the table below.

Comparing developmental and welfare state-building


Developmental state-building Welfare state-building
Overarching goal Economic growth Growth and equitable development
Key relationship State–business relations Party–civil society relations
Ideal kind of embeddedness State bureaucracy autonomously embedded with business sectors Institutionalised coordination between ruling parties and civil society
Favourable political settings Either democratic or authoritarian, but authoritarian more favourable Democratic far more favourable


II. Bringing Constitutions Back In

From my inductive research, I find the revisionist embeddedness account to be most relevant in understanding the divergent paths of contemporary Brazil and Thailand, in terms of not just cross-country comparison but also within-country dynamics. However, this account is overly structuralist, for it emphasises deep-rooted causes but mostly ignores the mediating role of institutions along the way, which eventually leads to the lack of concrete policy implications. My research then argues for the causal importance of constitutional design as an intervening variable in shaping emerging welfare state-building.
The advent of Brazil’s New Republic in 1985 was followed by the 1988 Constitution, which has been in use until now. Interestingly, the process of constitutional drafting was highly political in nature, and from the very beginning it was dubbed an ugly constitution. It started without a clear blueprint and was thereby contingent upon the balance of power among social forces. All the key actors inside and outside Congress played their parts in negotiating and even threatening their enemies. The final result was a compromised product full of incoherence and ambiguities. For all its faults, this Constitution emerged from a ‘bargaining equilibrium’ in which key actors accepted both an initial set of compromises that regulated their subsequent power game and a peaceful method for future amendments. Moreover, radical decentralisation has generated a host of participatory innovation at local level. Democratic deepening and welfare provision reached a milestone under the presidency of Lula da Silva and his Worker’s Party (2003–10), which won a number of local executives before winning the federal presidency in 2002. Lula’s regime was marked by a historic rise in the minimum wage and pension, as well as the expansion of social policies centred around the flagship programme called Bolsa Família. Brazil’s recent economic growth may not be particularly high, but it has proved to be pro-poor by most standards. Income inequality also fell sharply in recent decades.
Brazil’s ugly 1988 Constitution has proved to have greater longevity and to have incentivised more conducive party–civil society relations towards democratic deepening and welfare progress than Thailand’s beautiful 1997 Constitution, which was characterised by its technocratic design and anti-politics mentality. With the 2006 and 2014 military coups, Thailand’s constitutions have been re-designed again and again, but still cannot serve a long-term, credible social contract. As a political instrument, Thai constitutions have only led to reluctant decentralisation and provide incentives against party institutionalisation. Yet, even in a country of political chaos such as Thailand, the temporary effectiveness of social reform, such as the 30-baht health scheme, has been contingent upon the party–civil society relationship, as my conceptual assumption would predict.

III. Take-away Lessons

The implications from these initial findings are twofold. On the one hand, policymakers should be more macro-oriented. To a growing degree, the task of welfare state-building is far more structural, and requires a more broad-based alliance, than developmental state-building. By training, most policymakers tend to focus mainly on their specialisations and seek to provide first-best solutions to existing problems, assuming long-term political impacts as a given. In this regard, policymakers should shift their attention from micro to macro level. Under democratic welfare state-building, policy choices that prioritise short-term order and stability can do more harm than good in the long run – if they have an adverse impact on party institutionalisation and civil society development.
On the other hand, the implications for researchers are the reverse: They should be more micro-oriented. Students of comparative state studies are inclined to put things into structural and long-term perspectives by default. This is not totally wrong, but my findings call for a better understanding of institutional arrangements, which can be instrumental in redirecting or reinforcing such a structurally determined path. Researchers should be more attentive to the micro level of state-building analysis. Constitutional design, for example, has played a crucial role in shaping political realignments that could either foster or hinder the progress of emerging welfare states.