Development vs democracy in Africa?

Democratic governance before economic prosperity, or prosperity before governance? Can you have one without the other – do you need to have one to have the other? A long-running debate over the relationship between development and democracy may find fresh ground in an African context, with one set of indicators pointing to gains in human development but only faltering progress in terms of democratic governance.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s 2010 index, released earlier in the week, surveys African countries across 88 criteria, with the headline conclusion that “While many African citizens are becoming healthier and have greater access to economic opportunities than five years ago, many of them are less physically secure and less politically enfranchised”. The detail of the index offers an opportunity to differentiate among good performers and lesser ones, rather than lumping them all together into ‘Africa’: some countries remain in the grip of political turmoil, others have been able to make progress in improving their citizens’ lives.

The point of the index is partly to “inform and empower the continent’s citizens”, but there is an inbuilt assumption that democracy and development do go hand in hand. Ibrahim, writing in the Guardian, makes exactly this point:

We cannot afford to ignore this decline [in human rights, the rule of law and safety], or to rationalise it away as the cost of making progress on economic and development issues. This is a false choice. Experience shows that when political governance and economic management diverge, overall development becomes unsustainable.

Does it really? The democracy-development debate gained much of its traction from the East Asian example in the 1990s – the rise of the ‘Asian tigers’ as booming economic powerhouses but with an authoritarian tendency, seeming to counter the liberal Fukuyama-type thesis of the inevitable ascendance of liberal democracy around the world. I wonder if we couldn’t think of the trend reported by the Ibrahim Index in the same way?  This debate, which continues to thrive today, is essentially about how many paths to modernity there are – do countries need to attempt to mimick the model of the Western state? Or might there be a qualitatively distinct Asian, or indeed African, route to power and prosperity?

China remains the frequently cited example of this – a nondemocratic major power, with little sign of being on the edge of political revolution. In response, many are right to point out the fragility of the CCP’s rule – its legitimacy premised above all on its ability to deliver a rising standard of living for its people. But democracy can be pretty dysfunctional too, especially for the self-proclaimed leader of the free world – Stephen Walt frequently muses on whether the US political system is broken, and a just-published exhaustive New Yorker piece reveals the mind-numbing frustrations of trying to get a climate bill through the US Senate.

So when it comes to African states, prospects for political and economic reform offer a way of interrogating the broad contours of world politics since the post-Cold War, democratic optimism (triumphalism?) of the early 1990s: the flow of solidarist pressures on human rights; Western-led universalism that challenges conservative notions of sovereignty and non-interference.

Paul Kagame, recently reelected as Rwanda’s president, has been widely lauded for ensuring relative stability in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, even as complaints about heavy-handed rule persist. And Kagame is far from alone among rulers with an authoritarian streak. The democracy-development debate is a far from settled one, but its questions continue to challenge: Is democratic liberalization still on an inexorable march? Or is the future one more of the uneasy, pluralistic coexistence between authoritarian and democratic regimes?

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One thought on “Development vs democracy in Africa?


    Do you realize there is no true democracy in africa !

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