On Elite Capture, the Poor and Patron-Client Networks

By: Joy Aceron

In my continuing readings of evaluation studies on participatory reforms, I noticed that the concept of elite capture is repeatedly pointed out.

I like how one material (Saguin 2018) differentiates elite control vs. elite capture and the measures to address them using existing literature.

Elite control implies ‘elite domination of the participatory process but benefits still accrue to the poor (Dasgupta and Beard, 2007),’ while elite capture is ‘control and domination of the decision making processes (Ribot, 1993) or the disproportionate access to social, political and economic power.’

Participatory reforms are usually designed to address elite capture/ control. The same paper (Saguin 2018) discusses two strategies:

Counter-elite - ‘the deliberate exclusion of elites’ such as when participatory reforms entail directly electing the poor into decision-making councils or increasing involvement of civil society organizations that represent a diversity of interest (Wampler, 2008; de Sousa Santos, 1998).

Co-opt-elite - ‘requires cooperating with elites who can also act for the good of the poor (Platteau and Abraham, 2002)... [it] is ambivalent to elite involvement in the participatory processes but concerns itself with ensuring elites work for the benefit of the community and the poor.”

Counter-elite vs. co-opt elite or both

Since I did an analysis of Bottom-Up Budgeting (BuB) and is now doing an analysis of Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan (KALAHI), I would say that the programs employed both strategies: counter-elite and co-opt elite.

There was an effort to exclude the political elite at the local level, while supporting leadership of citizens/ civil society in decision-making. But it also cooperates with local government officials in some aspects of the programs, with controls to make sure the process yields outcomes that are beneficial to the people.

Complications often arose when civil society/ community and local government differed on what they think were good for the people. In other words, this is a case when the two strategies to deal with elites are not entirely compatible because the use of one (co-opt elite) undermines counter-elite measures.

In paper, both BuB and KALAHI are biased in favor of civil society/ community or the result of participatory processes. However, in reality, the evidence is mixed, and so are ground-level informal assessments. This is broadly a function of power dynamics and hence, the situation highly varies.

The interesting empirical question is what made the difference: When does elite control and/ or elite capture counter-measures work most effectively? Under what conditions do participatory processes prevail over attempts of the elite to capture the outcomes? My guess is that one factor is the degree of political organizing and education, which makes the role of political organizers critical. More on this in my other pieces.

Modes of allocating public goods

The likeliest scenario in reality (and possibly a solution in moving forward) is that elite control, elite capture and participatory processes co-exist in the allocation of resources in participatory reform programs. Jonathan Fox (2012) posits that the allocation of public goods can be rule/ formula-based, demand-driven/ deliberative and political elite discretion.

Using Fox’s category, I would say that BuB and KALAHI both follow rule/ formula-based and demand-driven/ deliberative principles in allocating resources. Resources were allocated in KALAHI and BuB according to a standard process that clarified the role and extent of power of the actors involved, which guided the deliberative/ participatory process that then decided where the resources would go.

On the other hand, while political elite discretion is supposedly totally eliminated in programs like KALAHI and BUB, the political weight of the involvement of local chief executives could be tantamount to setting aside a piece of the pie that local elites can allocate according to their discretion, even perhaps indirectly. In KALAHI, for instance, some studies (Lebonne and Chase 2009) show evidence that up to some extent, village leaders continue to be pivotal in determining where some of the resources would go.

Conceding that elite discretion also exists even in participatory reforms (with strict rules and processes for allocation) is a way forward, because that reality can be integrated in program design. If elite discretion becomes part of the design, it could perhaps be more easily checked and controlled. But then again, such acceptance of elite discretion might also crowd out the other modes of allocation. Greed, after all, is insatiable.

Pro-accountability vs anti-accountability exists at scale

Let me turn now to the assumption that is implicit in many participatory reform designs and evaluation: that participatory processes with citizens/ civil society are always superior than the judgment of political leadership (such as the mayor, for instance) on what is most beneficial for the people.

There is a need to rethink this because of the multi-level nature of anti-accountability/ anti-reform forces, or the scale of elite domination and patronage networks. In some instances, cooptation/ capture of participatory processes happens at lower levels involving other elites, both political and economic. In contrast, pro-reform/ pro-accountability allies can be present at different levels too. So, if proposals put forward through participatory processes have been coopted by barangay-level elites, yet the rules favor it more than the inputs of the local chief executive, who could be reform-oriented, the program itself has done a disservice to the people.

This is a especially crucial question to ask in contexts like the Philippines where patron-client networks are older and more pervasive in terms of depth and reach than political institutions. Clientelism is so enduring and pervasive that as Fox (2012) points out, “informal power relations infuse the behavior of formal institutions,” making “clientelistic relationship persist under elected democratic regimes.”

In this light, it is safe to assume that not only are formal political institutions and processes affected and shaped by patron-client networks, but more crucially, a big population of people and groups at the community level are one way or another connected to or part of these enduring patron-client relationship. At times, this form of relationship advances the symbiotic interests of patron and client (Fox [1994] neutrally defines clientelism as “a relationship based on political subordination in exchange for material rewards”), but ultimately perpetuate the patron’s dominance.

Who are the elites that we need to control?

One more question that came to my mind is how of late, the elite is being very broadly defined as everybody in the community or society that is non-poor or not marginalized. This to me is a bit dangerous because it dilutes the pressure of accountability on the very few who control political and economic power, and hence, arguably are the ones who are the strongest protector of the status quo.

Branding also those who are neither the poorest and the most marginalized as ‘elites’ narrows the base of those who can be counter- or anti-elite or who can be part of a broad counterveiling force against the few who control power. Branding, after all, affects identification. There are many are in the middle social strata (neither very rich nor poorest) who serve the interest of the poorest and the marginalized; and there are many common issues, especially these days, that negatively affect everybody except those at the most top.

Furthermore, controlling or coopting the participation of a broad people of non-rich to ensure the participation of the poorest maybe something that will defeat the purpose of open and inclusive participation. While I am inclined to agree that preferential treatment for the poorest of the poor is a crucial component of sustainably meaningful participatory reforms, this should be done without compromising the right to participation of everyone else, while controlling the tendency of the richest and the most powerful to skew any political process to their favor.

In light of this and going back to participatory reforms, the evidence that shows that the participation of the poorest in KALAHI have declined in the course of the program may not be totally an indication of elite capture or control since the participation of the rest of the community remained high all throughout the program, with evidence of empowerment of community volunteers who even became local government officials.

The more important question in my opinion is whether the members of the community, especially if they are very diverse, are able to somehow build unity around common goals that advance the welfare of the community, especially the most marginalized, and that check those in power through various accountability efforts, including infusing new blood in political leadership, if needed.

This brings me to my last point in this piece: the foregoing discussion points to the need for evaluation studies of participatory reforms to more deliberately go beyond looking at the procedural and nominal indicators of participation. It is good that the profile and identity of actors who participate (such as their socio-economic class, gender, education background, etc.) are already being looked into, but it cannot stop there.

We need to see the outcomes of participation to understand what factors determine/ shape the quality of participation and to define what kind of participation is for us the ideal. After many years of participatory reform initiatives and evaluations in an enduring state of patronage and clientelism, it is hard to keep the same assumptions (such as on the value of the participation of the poorest, who are the elite, impact of patron-client networks, etc.) even if these assumptions were once correct.


Aceron, Joy. 2019. The Pitfalls of Aiming to Empower the Bottom from the Top: The Case of Philippine Participatory Budgeting. Quezon City and Washington DC: Government Watch and Accountability Research Center. https://accountabilityresearch.org/publication/pitfalls-of-aiming-to-empower-the-bottom-from-the-top-the-case-of-philippine-participatory-budgeting/.

Fox, Jonathan. 2012. “State Power and Clientelism: Eight Propositions for Discussion.” In Hilgers, Tina (ed). Clientelism in Everyday Latin American Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.  https://jonathanfoxucsc.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/fox_state_power_and_clientelism_20121.pdf

Saguin, Kidjie.  2018. “Why the Poor Do Not Benefit from Community-driven Development: Lessons from Participatory Budgeting.” World Development; 112 (C): 220-232.