The choice between democracy and development

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For most of the twentieth century conventional wisdom has held that autocracies, rather than democracies, are best capable to marshal natural and national resources necessary to promote economic development, and that a certain level of economic development is necessary for democracy to take hold and flourish in a country.

This view has elicited scholarly and national policy debate on whether or not economic development leads to political democracy; or whether or not political democracy generates economic development. Modernisationists argue that economic growth leads to democracy, so much so that they advocate for “development first, democracy later”.
Some scholars such as Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George Downs find that in the case of China, the result of economic development would not lead to democracy because authoritarian regimes and autocracies show people that they can enjoy the benefits of economic development without political liberalization (Mesquita and Downs, 2005).

Traditional concerns of Western liberal democratic culture that insist on having more than one political party, competitive politics and regular elections have been questioned many a time by scholars who argue that it is foolhardy to believe that because a government has been elected it is therefore democratic.

The last decades of the 20th century will be remembered as the period that democratic movements were engaged in bitter struggles for liberation worldwide, especially in Africa. During that period, today’s champions of democracy such as international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, etc) and Western governments were against the democratic liberation struggles and instead favoured oppressive dictatorial regimes. Those who never bothered themselves about democracy, human rights, good governance, regular elections, etc., have become loud in demanding these same things from those who fought for democracy.

These tenets of democracy have now become conditions for accessing aid, loans or grants. This convergence has made many cynics and critics to question if these institutions and Western governments are serious about democracy, especially after creating, nurturing and sustaining the likes of Mobutu, Bokasa, Amini and others.
It has become commonplace that Western countries and Donor agencies fervently “defend” fundamental freedoms and human rights. However, when the people being defended against human rights abuses start demanding socio-economic progress and economic freedom that should naturally make democracy sustainable, they do not show the same enthusiasm.

As long as you have had elections that have been adjudged by the Carter Foundation and other electoral busy bodies to be “free and fair, relatively free and fair” or one in which “irregularities do not appear to have significantly affected the outcome”, then all is fine – whether you may sleep on an empty stomach or suffer from malnutrition, as long as they continue extracting your national resources.

This is why some countries are in open revolt against dominant international human rights NGOs with their obsession for individual rights at the expense of development and socio-economic rights.

This exposes the tension between the so-called first generation rights (civil and political rights) and the so-called secondary and tertiary generation rights (socio-economic, cultural rights and the right to development). The threat to democracy in Africa lies in the failure to wake up to the challenges of development. Africans need to start exercising intellectual and political autonomy over our own development. The current donor-driven agenda will surely not lead us to sustainable development. Democracy and development are not projects with a set time frame, life span, evaluation schedules or all the fashionable benchmarks set for us by NGOs and other donors. Whatever aid that Africa needs should be decided by Africans within their own context and priorities.

On this score, one would wish to congratulate two African countries whose development has been fast-tracked and is gaining momentum through pulling millions of Africans out of poverty. Rwanda and Ethiopia have become shining examples on the continent after embarking on a new governance model known as the “democratic developmental state”, developed and applied by the late Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia aimed at achieving a fast-growing economy and reduction of poverty through the promotion of the state’s prominent role in building robust accountable institutions and facilitating rapid sustainable development. The key to fast-tracked development in both Rwanda and Ethiopia lies in the integration of their home-grown solutions in the development processes as opposed to NGO and donor imposed conditions.

Africa should change the narrative on democracy and development by taking charge of our own destiny. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda sums up this debate in this way: “Democracy and development both depend on good politics, in which there is no room for special interests of the most powerful who benefited most from predatory states created by colonialism, and propped up by Cold War cynicism. Yet lately, the word democracy has been twisted to bring developing countries, our own, to some kind of order, especially those which have sought to liberate themselves from these prejudices. Our democratic advances are constantly negated, and in actual fact subverted. Ours is the true democracy of citizens, not the false one of institutionalized corruption and division or rent-seeking. We cannot be bullied into accepting policies that misrepresent us and do us harm in the end, as we have seen over many years. “Democracy and development in Africa are inseparable. Both were central to our liberation struggles, indispensable to political legitimacy today.”

Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.

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