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The Role of State Centrism in Aid-Dependent Rule of Law Public Administration

Understanding State Centrism

With dependence on U.S.-based foreign aid to maintain security and justice public administration, a heritage of elitist state control in a country can both perpetuate this dependence and limit its pervasive influence. This is part of the lesson emanating from Jamaica and this concept has implications for how we may understand the nexus between U.S.-based foreign aid and its significance to public administration in Anglophone Caribbean territories. State centrism in this sense describes the concentration of decisionmaking power in a middle class elite of business owners, politicians and influential families – groupings which are not necessarily demarcated. Critical decisions for the majority are therefore deferred to a few. This underpins the heritage of public administration in this context and is reflected in how the rule of law is maintained.


State Centrism and the Rule of Law

State centrism and the maintenance of the rule of law go hand in hand in Jamaica. It is noted that historically the rule of law was a means of control. There was an emphasis on dominance and a divide between white policymakers and subordinate classes between 1866 and 1944. The formation of the Jamaica Constabulary Force legitimized this approach. Crime had a direct relationship with class cleavages and perceptions of a ‘criminal’ subgroup were reflective of thinking emanating from England during the time period. Vagrants and beggars were perceived as ‘criminal’ as far back as the Tudor and Stuart periods, it is observed. Anglophone Caribbean countries such as Jamaica directly imported these attitudes and ideas.

By conflating race with class as the country moved into post-colonialism, it emerged that elite decision-makers were distinctly white, landed gentry who employed the subordinate black labor class to help expand their businesses. Through class struggle, a ‘mulatto petit-bourgeoisie’ made it into the professions and the public service by the 1930s. By the 1944 Constitution, these new political leaders continued with institutionalized social stratification which pervaded the entire society. They twinned their new political responsibilities with the retention of cleavages on the basis of social and familial ties. Therefore, the Jamaican society has been tutored by history and custom in how to repose critical decisionmaking power in a few middleclass men. Its rule of law public administration reflects this legacy.

The constitutional and regulatory structure around security and justice decisionmaking reflects core elitism and there are no incentives to change this in practice today. Responsibilities for critical rule of law functions are established by the 1962 Constitution and various pieces of legislation. These documents set out the roles and responsibilities of office holders such as the minister of defense who is constitutionally also the prime minister; director of public prosecutions, attorney general, commissioner of police and the ministers in charge of the respective ministries. While a ministry may be the central hub for hired technocrats to engage in policy advice and implementation, the work of civil servants inherently relies on these specialized office holders in a joined up manner. Their work also depends on operational decisions by the chief justice, usually a nominee of the minister of defense. Rule of law public administration in Jamaica is therefore constitutionally bound by laws and regulations, and is interwoven in the responsibilities of the political executive and the judiciary. Consequently, the tradition of state centrism is encapsulated in security and justice administration, and this structure of rule of law in Jamaica explains its natural link with state sovereignty.

If rule of law administration is inherently related with sovereign governance, yet is heavily dependent on U.S.-based foreign aid, how does it balance dependence and sovereignty?


How State Centrism Balances Aid Dependence and Sovereignty

Political elitism in Jamaica is the clue to understanding how Anglophone Caribbean countries can balance their dependence on U.S.-based aid with their post-1962 sovereignty. This is because the political executive is at the core of public administration in this context. Since independence, first generation political leaders in Jamaica were keen to maintain their urban middle-class legitimacy by retaining the trappings of the colonial predecessors. Similar to how locally domiciled white rulers of the Crown Colony period historically walked a fine line between their dependence on their superiors in Britain and maintaining superiority over the majority black labor class at home, present political leaders have been well tutored in how to simultaneously rely on foreign support and ring fence elite authority.

There are at least three reasons which help explain how this balancing act has been interwoven into the political psyche. Firstly, it is argued that between 1938 and 1962 (when it became clear Britain could no longer afford to support an increasingly restive colonial dependency) colonial rulers played on the pseudo-ideological divide between labor and political factions, and handed opportunities over to a like-minded ‘mulatto petit-bourgeoisie.’ Although they agitated for independence, this new crop still maintained British ‘soft power’ through education and culture. Simultaneously the largely unskilled labor classes divided their support between political parties whose bourgeois leaders had no real socio-economic differences between them. Therefore, the political stock in Jamaica shared homogenous class affinity, handpicked by colonial powers.

Secondly, while there has been political and economic competition within this middle class leadership since 1962, there has also been a commitment not to allow permeation domestically by the lower classes, or externally by foreign powers. Institutionally, this was structured to ensure that the ‘winner takes all.’ Members of the lower classes could only aspire to the political elite by way of the arduous ranks of political parties, and under no circumstance would there be allowed neo-colonial or external pressure through external aid, trade or diplomatic relations. Only experienced party members and politicians gained respect and had the ears of the prime minister. By this time they would have become fully initiated political elite. Therefore, a ring fenced core elite schooled in colonial devices helps secure the sovereignty of the rule of law public administration domain, despite being dependent on USAID, IDB or UN entities for development assistance over the years.

Thirdly, the level of blind deference to this elitism on the part of the populace reinforces almost autonomous political decisionmaking. Despite its violent colonial history, Jamaica never had any record of anti-government coups or anti-hegemonic civil society activism. Instead civic participation came in the form of special service clubs, which weere always an extension of political and business life. It was not unusual for civic organizations to be led by political affiliates, sympathizers or business owners. Consequently, in the last 50 years there have been little if any checks on the decisionmaking potency of the political elite.

In these three ways, state centrism is illuminated as an institutional practice of public administration in Jamaica. This has had implications for rule of law foreign aid and citizen security programs in more recent times.


State Centrism as an Institutional Baggage or Blessing?

Political elitism has institutionally forged a balancing act between the maintenance of independent sovereignty and dependence on external assistance. Although Jamaica is now dependent on foreign aid to sustain citizen security programs as part of the wider rule of law responsibility, this dependence does not simultaneously compromise political autonomy or local ownership of these programs. This becomes a mixed blessing for donor-funded citizen security programs in Jamaica and across the Latin American and Caribbean regions. Exogenously, it means the Jamaican political leadership will retain sovereign control over the design, tenor and flow of citizen security funding. Among other things, this limits the tendency of some donors to liberally standardize assistance packages across sectors, countries and regions without critical grasp of intrinsic differences. However, it simultaneously questions the extent to which citizens and their communities may endogenously defer their ownership of these programs to elite policymakers or repose decision-making within themselves as their individual needs arise.

The next article will discuss how state centrism stacks against the nature of political competition as another institutional characteristic, and how this characteristic impacts rule of law public administration and development assistance programs.


Author: Vaughn Graham is a doctoral candidate in the University of Birmingham, UK. He has also worked with the Jamaican government for more than 10 years in various capacities. He has experience with rule of law policymaking and the implications for various donor funded programs and projects.  

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