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Democracy and Development

October 7, 2009


The American essayist Agnes Repplier once wrote, “Democracy forever teases us with the contrast between its ideals and its realities, between its heroic possibilities and its sorry achievements.” That pretty well sums up the conundrum often faced by the development community as it works with governments to help bring prosperity to a developing country — at what point should the balance tip towards democracy rather development? Everyone would like to see people enjoy political freedom and live in a country that respects human rights. Those ideals are found among other liberal values encompassed by the term “democracy.” But democracy encompasses a lot of other traits that often make development difficult — especially representational democracy. I have noted before that single-party states generally have an easier time developing because single-party governments are better able to make difficult decisions about investing in critical infrastructure (or granting monopolies to people who will build it) when they are surrounded by wants and needs on every side. Infrastructure is critical to attracting foreign direct investment and FDI is critical for creating jobs, supporting a sustainable middle class, and launching a country on the road to prosperity. As a result of investing in infrastructure, governments are in much better position to address other needs.


For those reasons, you will more often find people in the development community talking more about human rights than democracy. The American pacifist Abraham Johannes (A.J.) Muste (1885-1967) remarked, “The survival of democracy depends on the renunciation of violence and the development of nonviolent means to combat evil and advance the good.” The history of democracy in developing countries, however, is filled with violence and evil [“The ballot and the bottom billion,” The Economist, 28 March 2009 print issue].


In the poor world, elections often seem to be accompanied by violence, civil war or worse. Over the past two years, in Africa alone, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya have all experienced widespread unrest during and immediately after general elections. These ballots not only precipitated killing and maiming; the violence also seemed to discredit democracy itself. It allowed critics, such as China, to lecture the West on the inherent divisiveness of democracy; best not to bother, is the verdict from the East. And if your family has been incinerated in a church in Kenya in a bout of ethnic cleansing triggered by an election, who is to say that the Chinese are so wrong? That is an uncomfortable question for Americans and Europeans.”


The article is actually a review of Paul Collier’s book entitled Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places.” The article continues:


The author challenges a lot of lazy Western thinking about the trajectory that poor countries should take to improve their lot. Mr Collier is an academic economist, and applies quantitative research to democracy and government in the countries he looks at. His teams of researchers use data from household surveys, election results and the like to give statistical substance to some broad assertions. The results sometimes restate the obvious, but just as often they are new and provocative. Most important, he shows unambiguously what observers of elections in poor countries have long suspected: that on their own, unless they are held in the context of a functioning democracy, elections can retard rather than advance a country’s progress. ‘If democracy means little more than elections, it is damaging to the reform process,’ he writes. … Mr Collier observes that elections begin to pay dividends to society only when they occur in a system of checks and balances, with a functioning rule of law: ‘As with elections and reform, democracy is a force for good as long as it is more than a façade.’ That thought alone should make all Western donors and United Nations officials pause long and hard before doling out more millions of dollars to support so-called democratic elections in Congo, Nigeria or, maybe this year, Sudan.”


Collier isn’t arguing against the international community pressing authoritarian governments to protect human rights or provide citizens basic freedoms. He’s arguing that elections can be divisive. Based on the current state of U.S. politics, you would think that lesson would be well understood in America. Development simply can’t get a toehold in a divided country. In the book, Collier also points to ethnic identity as a challenge to development when elections are involved. Another challenge is “the presence of a large pool of underemployed, testosterone-charged youths.” The review continues:


Economic development is ‘a key remedy to violence’, he argues; you may not be able to take the testosterone out of young thugs, but creating jobs gives them something to do other than take up machetes. Rapid development, his research shows, is probably the most important determinant for maintaining peace. Aid alone does not achieve this; encouraging a flourishing private sector does. Likewise, creating a national identity helps to trump the politics of ethnic divisiveness by persuading people not to vote blindly for the party of their ethnic group, as happened in Kenya at the end of 2007. Mr Collier dwells on the example of Tanzania, where Julius Nyerere, the country’s first president, succeeded in building a strong sense of nationhood. The result is a relatively long-standing peace, despite the historic differences that still prevail between the mainland and Zanzibar.”


I wholeheartedly agree with Collier’s conclusions about the importance of rapid development in helping reduce violence and securing a better future for the world’s bottom billion. However, The Economist doesn’t agree with all of the solutions offered by Collier in his book; but nevertheless concludes:


Mr Collier is thinking about these urgent and very difficult issues, something not many people are willing to tackle head-on. He has kicked off a debate that should be raging inside the development agencies and chancelleries of every Western capital, and in Africa and Asia too. The effort is surely worth it. This book was written before the recent knife-edge election in Ghana, a successful exercise in democracy, conducted in the most strained of circumstances. The rule of law prevailed. That will reassure outside investors and create a sound environment for the private sector. This is the sort of public good that elections and democracy should deliver, but so often don’t. When it works, a good election can be a turning-point.”


Dealing with ethnic challenges is not a simple matter. Anna Garlin Spencer, an American educator, feminist, and Unitarian minister (1851-1931), wrote: “The essence of democracy is its assurance that every human being should so respect himself and should be so respected in his own personality that he should have opportunity equal to that of every other human being to show what he was meant to become.” That democratic ideal often butts against the cruel reality that historically minorities are not treated well by majorities. Rights are abused and indignities suffered. In the worst circumstances, ethnic cleansing is pursued as state policy. Under such conditions, trying to forge a national identity is often impossible. The result is the creation of autonomous areas, such as in Iraq, or the formation of new states, such as took place in the former Yugoslavia.


The dream of most ethnic groups is to have their own country — and that can be a problem when it comes to development. I recall reading somewhere that there are approximately 5000 recognized ethnic groups in the world. If each of those ethnic groups decided they wanted their own country, it’s obvious that few of them would be economically viable. That means that countries with more than one ethnic group within their borders must find a way to help those ethnic groups protect their culture but also identify with the larger national identity. That’s not an easy task. Helping them develop a viable economy is also not easy. Take the case of the people living on the Tiwi Islands of Australia [“Self-Determination and the Problem of Economic Development,” by Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times, 29 September 2009]. Klinkenborg, a non-fiction writer and member of the New York Times editorial board, writes about a trip to the Tiwi Islands:


Melville Island lies half an hour by small plane north of Darwin, Australia, at the very tip of the Northern Territory. … Melville and Bathurst Island ([are] collectively known as the Tiwi Islands). … The irregular broken cover of eucalyptuses native to the Tiwi Islands gives way to what look like geometrically planted orchards — 75,000 acres of them. The trees in those long, straight rows are not fruit trees. They’re fast-growing acacias, native to eastern, not northern Australia. What they’re good for is wood chips, the raw material of the paper industry. [The acreage of trees is known as ‘The plantation’ and it’s in receivership.] Great Southern Plantations — the Perth-based company that ran the plantation — collapsed in May, and a banking consortium that was helping support the wood-chip project is scheduled to pull out at the end of September. Great Southern’s real business was not managing agricultural properties. It was selling managed investment schemes — investments in its properties. But this is not just another forestry project gone awry — 75,000 acres of bankrupt monoculture where there used to be native tropical woodland. The Tiwi Islands are aboriginal reserves. In other words, the islands are owned by ‘traditional owners’ — the Australian phrase for its indigenous population living on traditional lands. The partnership with Great Southern Plantations was supposed to create as many as 300 jobs on Melville Island — jobs that would go to Tiwi Islanders — and leave behind, once its 60-year lease had expired, the infrastructure for a thriving forestry business. What’s left behind is a sense of desolation and distrust.”


The problem that Klinkenborg is pointing out is one that affects a lot of ethnic minorities who find themselves living on land with few natural resources — how can a sustainable economic base be created that takes advantage of local circumstances? Putting one’s chips on a single bet (in this case wood chips!) is never a good idea. Tiwi Islanders were hoping to find a path that would lead to self-determination. Klinkenborg continues:


The question … [isn’t] just the economic loss involved — the loss of jobs and royalties and individual investments. It [is] the meaning of this failure, its demoralizing effect on a people who have been striving to find a way toward economic self-determination. Like traditional owners on the mainland, the Tiwi have had to struggle with the cruel vicissitudes of Australian policy toward its aboriginal population — everything from the brutality of official racism to the confused tolerance that has come in more recent times with cultural and political empowerment. … The more I listened, the more it seemed there was a forceful analogy between the plight of the Tiwis and the plight of all of us. How do we balance the need to find the economic wherewithal to educate children, to bolster self-confidence and a sense of self-determination, with the need to preserve our cultural integrity and our homelands? On Melville Island, the problem appears in its starkest form. The Tiwi tried to strike that balance with the best of corporate and governmental intent in hopes of a sound, self-determined future — far brighter than their present. The good news in this failure is that it happened before Great Southern could expand its plantation — as planned — to 247,000 acres. And now, for the Tiwi, the question of the immediate economic future — and their ultimate integrity as a people — has to be reopened.”


The experience on the Tiwi Islands underscores the difficulties that countries face when trying to protect minorities and, at the same time, try to secure a better future for everyone. There are no easy answers. Certainly the answers can’t be found in any one form of government or even one form of democracy. The development community will continue to press governments to respect human rights, but it will also encourage them to develop strategies that lay the foundation for a brighter future. The late Dorothy Thompson, a conservative American journalist (1894-1961), once wrote: “Of all forms of government and society, those of free men and women are in many respects the most brittle. They give the fullest freedom for activities of private persons and groups who often identify their own interests, essentially selfish, with the general welfare.” Only when self-interests are truly replaced with the common good is progress achieved.

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