The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


DPU PhD student successfully defends thesis on investigating the politics of policy learning

27 September 2023

Congratulations to Jing Zhang who has successfully defended her thesis, ‘Investigating the Politics of Policy Learning: The Industrial Park Programme in Ethiopia and its Engagement with China’

Image of the entrance to Hawassa Industrial Park, an industrial equipment supplier in Awasa, Ethiopia

Jing Zhang has successfully defended her thesis argument that coalitions among domestic elites that ensure legitimacy and align interests also reveal political opportunities and constraints on which the learning of industrial policy may facilitate processes of institutional building.

Africa’s economic landscape has long been blighted by a slow pace of industrialisation and uncertainties about its growth prospects. Whilst policy reforms framed by the Washington Consensus failed, the economic success of East Asia in the last few decades provided alternative lessons. Based on greatly renewed interests in industrial policy at the turn of the 21st century, her research asks how African latecomers learn to industrialise through formulating and implementing industrial policy: to what extent; through what mechanism; and what is the role of external actors?

Jing traces the development of the industrial park programme in Ethiopia and its engagement with China. Her research goes beyond a normative agenda of policy learning in a broader academic and policy discussion that tends to assume that policy learning is a policy good. By exploring the role of underlying politics in shaping the dynamics of ‘learning by emulation’ and ‘learning by doing’, her research urges caution to those vocal but apolitical readings of policy learning as a straightforward process of capacity building or knowledge utilisation.  Specifically, based on an adapted political settlement framework, this research operationalises policy learning into different types of policy changes, which are induced by the interaction between ideas and actors on a transitional scale. At the same time, she examines the structural impacts of ‘politics’ on policy learning from institutional and cognitive perspectives.

Her findings also highlight the complex interaction between domestic political elites and external actors. It encourages future research to pay more attention to the configuration of individuals, organisations and their interaction in shaping the process and prospects of Africa’s late industrialisation, instead of focusing on the agency in one direction only.

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