Athens' Parthenon. Filckr/claire rowland. CC BY 2.0.Is democracy the only kind of political system that can deliver on prosperity and stability? This is the question that I was asked to address in a panel organised as part of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s 25th anniversary conference that took place in London last week. As much as I would like to argue to the contrary, I am afraid the answer must be “no”. There are many examples that show that democracy is not a necessary condition to achieve development.
However, we are at a juncture where the stability and resilience of democracy has come into question, not just in developing settings but also in some of the world’s oldest and most established democracies. If we turn the question around and ask instead: "does democracy have to deliver in order to be sturdy and resilient over time?", then the answer is a resounding “yes”.
In many countries, democratic institutions that are in place are often hollow, weak and ineffective.
Why is it so essential for democracy to deliver? Many people agree that democracy has intrinsic value in its own right as a process to arrive at decisions in more inclusive, representative, participatory, transparent and accountable ways, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has argued. However, research emerging from Africa, Latin America and Asia suggests that, across the developing world, people often place more instrumental values on governance. While they care about democracy in principle, it is a decidedly secondary concern. People value political freedoms and democracy mostly in relation to how democracies perform and whether they successfully provide expected goods and services.
This places democracy under considerable strain. A profound dissatisfaction with how democracy works has become manifest in many if not most democracies, including the United States and the United Kingdom. So this revised question – of how democracy can deliver – has become one of the leading challenges of our time.
The good news is that a majority of the countries in the world today are “electoral democracies” of some form. The less encouraging news is that in the developing world only a small number of democracies have become deeply rooted. This is especially true among those that emerged as part of the wave of democratisation from the 1980s onward. In many countries, democratic institutions that are in place are often hollow, weak and ineffective. The ability of these regimes to perform in both economic and social terms is mixed at best. The fate of many of the Arab Spring countries (Egypt or Libya, for example) vividly illustrates the fact that overthrowing a dictator can be far easier than establishing an effective democratic system.
Why has it proven so difficult for democracies to deliver? Democracies operate within conditions and contexts that offer opportunities but also pose distinct challenges when it comes to promoting (shared) prosperity and development. It is absolutely essential for us to recognise these challenges because too much is expected of these incipient democracies, much too soon.
Here are some the elements that help explain how high expectations collide with reality:
* While democracy may well foster more participatory and inclusive decision-making processes, this does not mean that they are automatically more effective. In fact, there is nothing about democracy that, by virtue of its nature, leads to better developmental outcomes, whether in terms of stability, prosperity or anything else.
* Under a democratic regime, public authorities are expected to engage with a wider range of actors when deciding on and implementing policy. This creates more "veto players". Proliferation of interests encourages fragmentation within the state and society, and obstructs the emergence of a united front for progressive reform.
* Greater access to the state also means that bureaucracy can more easily become politicised, and the need to respond to many narrow and particularistic demands stretches state capacity to the maximum.
* While elections are essential to foster the legitimacy, accountability and responsiveness of a political system, electoral competition, or what Thomas Carothers has referred to as “relentless electoralism”, often generates incentives that foment fragmentation and undermine coherent policy-making based on long-term priorities.
* And last but not least there is the pervasive problem of money in politics and whose voices are being heard, and this is an issue that is as real in democracies in developing countries as it is in well-established democracies like the UK or the US.
From ideas to delivery
The long-term struggle for greater equality illustrates some of the constraints embedded in democratic politics. As Walter Scheidel has poignantly argued, historically some of the greatest strides against inequality have been achieved not through democratic decision-making, but through much more complicated, controversial and perverse means – including, for instance, authoritarian coercion (e.g. successful episodes of land reforms that obliterated prevailing hierarchical social structures in Japan, Korea and Taiwan), mass violence and war (e.g. the disintegration of the Roman Empire, the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and World War II) and natural catastrophes (e.g. the Black Death).
Some of the greatest strides against inequality have been achieved not through democratic decision-making, but through much more complicated, controversial and perverse means
It is this natural tendency of democratic systems to fragment, diffuse and divide power and to make decision-making more protracted and uncertain that has raised the appeal of authoritarian models of development among some quarters. In fact, many of the so-called "developmental states" that have been relatively more successful in fostering shared prosperity have also been non-democratic. Think again of Korea and Taiwan prior to their respective democratic transitions as part of the third wave, or of contemporary China and Vietnam.
Of course, not all authoritarian regimes are developmental or committed to greater equity and shared prosperity. History is full of examples that prove otherwise. And however flawed and fraught with difficulties, a growing number of democracies in the developing world – including countries as diverse as Botswana, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ghana, India, and Mauritius – have been able to foster inclusion and shared prosperity. Yet, just as authoritarian settings face their own challenges, the examples of each of these democracies also provides evidence that promoting development in a democratic context introduces distinct challenges and trade-offs, and “all good things” do not necessarily go together. Scandal-riven Brazil captures this perhaps most acutely: over the past two decades the country has made tremendous progress in reducing inequality, but corruption has thoroughly pervaded the political system.
But just because democracies face challenges, especially among those in developing settings, does not mean that the struggle for democracy is not worthwhile. It is not the case that only democracies can deliver. But supporting them to do so is vital if they are to prove sustainable and resilient over time. This means understanding and addressing the problems they face, rather than assuming them away. The work of the international development community is committed to fostering more inclusive states and societies, but it needs to be grounded on a more nuanced understanding of how change actually happens. Having realistic expectations about what democracies, especially those across the developing world, can be reasonably expected to accomplish is an important place to start. Helping democracies to deliver is a formidable endeavour, but one that is well worth pursuing. However imperfect, democracy is still better than the available alternatives.