Democracy and development: towards Busan

The capacity of new or fragile democratic regimes to deliver development is being closely debated as international agencies prepare for a landmark summit in South Korea. The core issue at stake is presented by Alina Rocha Menocal.
Alina Rocha Menocal
25 October 2011

Many international organisations are now preparing intensively for the fourth high-level forum on aid effectiveness to be held in Busan, South Korea on 29 November - 1 December 2011. At the heart of the debates leading up to this event is the key question of ownership, and the underlying issue of how democracy and development interrelate and affect each other.

In this respect a contribution by Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair - his first public engagement in the UK since leaving office in June 2007 - is worth noting. At an event on 19 October 2011 jointly hosted by the Overseas Development Institute and the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) - the fourth meeting in a series on "Busan and beyond: aid effectiveness in a new era" - Blair offered the challenging argument that leadership for development must be rethought in ways that help leaders develop effective capacity "to get things done" ; and in particular that "if you don’t have a strong centre, then nothing gets done".

The proposition was part of a larger survey of issues such as aid dependence and infrastructure, private-sector dynamism, and the new spirit of self-reliance across Africa which Blair saw as one of the most significant changes he had seen in the continent since 2005. But the emphasis on a "strong centre" raises timely and tough questions to practitioners about the relationship between democracy and development.

Such questions can make donors feel uncomfortable. From a normative perspective, it is much easier to assume that democracy and development automatically go hand in hand in mutually reinforcing ways. This is the thinking behind much of the "good governance" agenda championed by the international community since the 1990s, even if democracy itself has not always been an explicit element of the support package. In many ways, this vision of the international community - "all good things go together" - is understandable: to a great degree it reflected and accompanied the wave of democratisation that has swept across much of the developing world in the past thirty years, and which has now reached the middle east and north Africa.

Democracy vs state-building?

But this is still far from the "end of history" proclaimed prematurely by some enthusiasts in the early 1990s. The query posed by Tony Blair, of what a democratic regime can actually deliver, thus remains as relevant as ever. It speaks to a situation where high expectations that incipient democracies will deliver development have often proved unrealistic, and where democracies that fail to produce developmental outcomes turn out to be much more fragile and unstable than others. The case of contemporary Rwanda, to cite but one example, shows both the dilemmas and tensions between democracy and development that need to be addressed and the lack of easy answers.

In this respect, Blair's suggestion that visionary leaders are able to look beyond short-term electoral interests and focus on the long-term public good is not entirely satisfactory; for it neatly avoids facing the difficulties that routine democratic politics may pose to developmental prospects.

Recent examples include the dispute in the United States over increasing the debt ceiling, and the European Union's less than stellar management of the eurozone crisis. Both show that leaders find it hard to rise above immediate or partisan interests and embrace a sense of the broader public good. And if the top figures in the strongest democracies in the world can't do this, it seems even less likely that leaders in fledgling or fragile democracies - where elections may be driven by a clientelistic logic, especially in multi-ethnic settings - will be able to. The example of post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-08 is particularly stark.

Blair’s argument that some constraints on democratic freedoms may need to be tolerated if leaders are showing developmental results also needs careful assessment. After all, history is littered with examples of non-developmental authoritarian states, or of leaders who were once committed to development but lost their vision (think Robert Mugabe) in the developing world. To bet on the greater developmental efficiency of such regimes is a dangerous wager that the ends will justify the means.

Democracy vs the greater public good?

The conundrum that countries in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world face is twofold: they are trying both to democratise and (perhaps even more fundamentally) to build effective, capable states whose institutional grounding allows them to weather changes in leadership.

Much as the international community would like to have it otherwise, these are not one and the same thing; and to some degree these two processes can also pull in different directions. For democratisation often means establishing checks and balances and diffusing power more evenly among more people within and outside government, while strengthening state capacity may mean greater centralisation of power and autonomy of those in charge.

In many young democracies, especially the poorest and most fragile states, institutions are weak and ineffective, and the quality and capacity of the public sector remains limited. Here, the state cannot perform key functions, provide basic services, or respond to the needs of its citizens adequately. As a result, there is a real danger that the state loses legitimacy in the eyes of the population; in turn this can be a route to instability and the undermining of democratic institutions.

Some recent research has begun to explore the effects of democratisation on other development goals (such as growth, poverty, inequality and corruption), and concludes that there are no automatic positive effects from democratisation on other areas of governance and development. Indeed, the impact (as in the case of corruption) may even be negative. If this is true, such tensions need far more attention as the international community thinks about policy and practice.

This in turn implies that donors face a central test both in the lead-up to Busan and beyond. First, to recognise that when they make choices about how to support democracy and promote development, they need to think more substantively about how their activities in one realm affect the other. Second, to understand how these choices affect or are affected by broader statebuilding efforts, which may or may not integrate well with democratisation or development ambitions.

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