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The developmental state is back at the centre of the international policy debate. But policy-makers still have much to learn from the large research-based literature on the subject. In introducing a theme issue of DPR on this subject, this article provides an overview of three central topics: the relationship between the project of building or rebuilding effective states and the ‘good governance’ agenda; the role of the international aid community in stimulating or hindering state-building; and the search for a way forward which incorporates awareness of the variety of successful development models and of the role that aid inevitably plays in the incentive structure of state elites in poor developing countries.