The Politics of Uneven Development: Thailand's Economic Growth in Comparative Perspective

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The Politics of Uneven Development: Thailand's Economic Growth in Comparative Perspective. By Richard F. Doner. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.351 pp. $80.00 (cloth); $24.99 (paper).

Richard Doner's new book is among the most important works of the last ten years on Southeast Asian politics or the political economy of development. In it, he lays out a theory of political choices and economic change at critical junctures in the course of development, maps the broad contours of Thailand's historical experience, and traces the micro-processes through which these unfolded in specific sectors. Each part of the study is impressively executed and makes important contributions.

Doner's main theoretical contribution is to distinguish between what he calls "structural change" and "upgrading" and to elucidate the processes through which countries can achieve either, as well as the conditions necessary for doing so. For Doner, structural change involved the accumulation of scarce capital and its investment in socially productive and economically efficient ways in order to build industrial sectors where previously none had existed. In other words, low-income countries that depend on the export of primary products or subsistence agriculture undertake a vitally important shift toward middle-income status when they manage to amass and invest sufficient capital to begin industrializing. Upgrading is more complex.

Upgrading marks the escape from what Doner terms the "middle-income trap" and onto a new development trajectory. This entails making existing factories and firms more efficient or, more often, innovating new products or processes and moving in a concerted way into the production of higher-value-added goods and services. While structural change is extensive in that it develops industry where there had been none, upgrading is intensive in that it transforms existing industry in ways that emphasize innovation and increasing technological application and expertise.

All development tasks require specific state capacities, which must be supported by key actors in the political system that Doner terms "veto players." Incentives and resources for nurturing these capacities are driven by systemic vulnerability as expressed through external security threats and domestic resource constraints, such that states lacking resources and facing international challengers have the strongest motivation to press forward with upgrading, while their relatively secure or resource-rich counterparts can often be derailed into focusing more on the disbursement of patronage and the maintenance of the status quo. These arguments build nicely on the earlier work of Peter Evans, Dani Rodrik, and David Waldner, among others. But Doner's is the most cogent and neatly consistent articulation of this perspective so far.

Following ninety-five pages of theoretical discussion in broad terms, Doner turns to the history of Thailand's development experience to highlight its admirable achievements of rapid structural change as well as its ongoing struggles with upgrading. In this one chapter, again building well on the previous work of scholars such as Kevin Hewison, Allen Hicken, and Laurids Lauridsen, Doner offers one of the most comprehensive and concise overviews of the Thai case to be published in the last twenty years. …