There are four approaches to the question of democracy and development. Development is a necessary precondition for democracy; democracy is essential for development; democracy and development are two sides of the same transformative coin; and the more skeptical view that the two processes are largely independent and possibly antagonistic of one another.
The first argument has been dominant in the past. With apparent failure of electoral democracies in some parts of the world and human development indices suggesting lack of social progress, this argument has once again been advanced. To begin with, democracy requires certain levels of institutional development, economic prosperity and citizen autonomy, if it is to survive.
There are two corollaries to this proposition. The first is that economic development and increasing citizen independence in the market place establish a push for political liberalization and hence set the country on a potentially democratic transition. Secondly, too early an adoption of democracy can freeze the status quo of the underdevelopment, leaving societies hugely unequal and unable to introduce the economic restructuring that will create the equality and frugal but steady growth necessary for democratic sustainability.
Pro-democracy advocates argue that attention be given to democratic institutions; empowerment of citizens through elections and other forms of political participation and constitutional reforms.
A number of theorists, of whom the most well known is Amartya Sen, have suggested focusing heavily on structural issues: the economy, jobs, the positioning of a particular country within the global market. Instead they point out that human development at its best is an insistence on personal freedoms and empowerment. Lifting people from poverty; yes, but also ensuring that the poor have a voice. In this more nuanced approach, democracy is a critical component of a developmental approach, and development must insist on democratization. However, there are skeptics who focus on the transformative nature of development and the more conservative rules of democracy creating a 21st century impasse for late development states.
Recent intergovernmental statements from the aspirational to the binding have acknowledged what one might call the democracy first model, but these tend to predate recent cynicism about imposed democratization, and hope for the trajectory of China. Africa is a prime example of how democracy is being used as a primary model of conflict resolution and development. It is a model that has a number of roots the AU constitutive act, the NEPAD framework, and the South African transition, with its embedded but insufficiently explored national peace accord. The Organisation of American States has a charter which opens the door to inter-state cooperation in favour in democracy.
Obviously these competing points of view have programmatic implications. If a modicum of development is a precondition for democratic flowering, then tolerance of public spirited authoritarianism and paternalism should be coupled with activities which encourage take off health care, education law the development the middle class, and an endogenous economy. If democracy is required to foster development, then institutions to manage resource conflicts, representative and autonomous legislatures, political parties and other civil forms of interest mediation, the rule of law, the dispersal of power through constitutional separations, civilian control over the security forces, decentralization, and the protection of the market from state hegemony should become the priorities.
The inclination to fall on one side or other of this divide despite considerable commonality of strategic actions often depends substantially on the view one takes of people. Are they merely a raucous mob, incapable of public action but motivated by fear, greed, familial ties and demagoguery? (This is not a new attitude: previous generations of women, workers, black people, the unpropertied or the unlettered have had to fight against such prejudices in many older democracies.) Or are they capable of wise, public action in which individual interests are submerged in favour of the common good?
It was Churchill who pointed out, in commenting on the rebuilding of the Westminister parliament to its original form after World War II that people are indeed shaped by their architecture. There is an argument that apparently irresponsible mobs become citizens by more democracy rather than by control, but the history of transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy demonstrates that those riding assumed tigers find it very difficult to get off. Unfortunately, the readily available techniques of managing elections, the rapidity with which the contemporary world accepts the accouterments of democracy in order to continue with development and humanitarian assistance, and the inability of poor citizens to stand against powerful elites has meant that pseudo (or illiberal) democracies are on the increase.
By Paul Graham
Institute for Democracy in South Africa
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