The Bureaucracy and Military in Developing Countries


The bureaucracy and the military are institutions that concentrate political power and they are each described as among the most powerful political institutions in the developing world.  I will briefly compare these institutions: the relationship of each to the state, the sources of power for each, and institutional pathologies. I will mention the role of culture in the bureaucracy and in the military, and their relationship to each other and to other institutions, such as political parties. Finally, I will briefly reveal how the institutions differ when we consider them in the particular context of the developing world.

The bureaucracy and military are powerful institutions. The relationship of the bureaucracy to the state is reflected when the bureaucracy implements and enforces state policy.  Smith found the bureaucracy to be a “specialized institution” that implemented public policy (132).  The state relies, in fact, on the bureaucracy to enforce the laws in a civil manner.  The bureaucracy creates “officialdom” (Smith, 136).  When officialdom fails in developing countries, then the military is “the final arbiter in political conflict” (Smith, 156).  The military’s true power, thus, is unleashed during a coup to usurp all power.

The military and bureaucracy are powerful institutions, but their normal power often stems from different political positions. The bureaucracy’s power stems from the legitimacy of the state.  As Smith said, the bureaucracy “controls and manages the means of production through the state” (143).  However, once the bureaucracy (government) loses legitimacy via corruption, lack of economic improvement, etc, then the military might claim to be the legitimate authority.  The military might initiate a coup d’état to be the guardian, veto, anticipatory, or reforming political movement (Smith, 158).  And while the pathology of the bureaucracy is supposed to be one of openness, the pathology of the military is one of “secrecy” (Smith, 155).  This also creates a culture within these institutions.

The cultures of the bureaucracy and military differ in remarkable ways. The bureaucracy is generally the institution where “legitimacy depends upon local authority carrying out state policies” (Schedler, 133-4).  The military, on the other hand, is the “praetorian guard” (131).  When the military becomes aware of mainstream election manipulation, it may use this knowledge as a “pretext” to initiate a coup (134).  Thus, the bureaucracy works diligently to maintain legitimacy, while the military is always a legitimate answer to an illegitimate bureaucracy (government).  Often, military coups happen when there is a “breakdown of [political] consensus” (Smith, 165).

The military and bureaucracy create many relationships with external institutions, such as political parties and interest groups.  For example, since the bureaucracy’s job is to enforce the laws within the state, their enforcement affects the economy (banking, healthcare, etc), environment (regulation), consumer and worker advocacy, and power structure (Smith, 146). The military’s major advantage over external institutions is due to their “clear chain of command” (166).  Overall, the military will usually stand down when the economy is healthy, there is a healthy projection for the economy, and the democratic elections are free and fair.

Government will often be the source of stability and growth in the developing world.  Political parties particularly latch on to the military when there is weak political legitimacy, such as within authoritarian regimes (Schedler, 131).  In the developing world, the government and bureaucracy are expected to provide “social and economic infrastructure” and create production (Smith, 131).  The bureaucracy will often “monopolize knowledge” (135). It is a complex relationship.



Schedler, Andreas, ed. 2006. Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition. Lynne Rienner.

Smith, B. C. 2009. Understanding Third World Politics: Theories of Political Change and Development, 3rd Edition.IndianaUniversity Press.



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