Monday, April 21, 2014

Democracy and Development Politics

Democracy and Development Politics

I like brain teasers. I’m also a bit of a fan of debating (my girlfriend would probably call it arguing!), so the chance to get my head around a topic that is both a bit controversial and also has no obvious right or wrong answer, is always going to appeal - so this unit was tailor-made for me!

The module I’ve been studying this week is “Democracy and Development Politics”. That’s obviously a pretty huge topic, but in the end it boils down to one central question:

Is democracy a pre-requisite for development, or vice-versa?

An Indian woman shows her ink-marked finger after voting
Democracy is in the news a lot at the moment. We’ve got the growing tensions in the Ukraine, while in India, the largest democracy in the world, historical elections are happening, where over 10% of the world’s total population will be voting over the course of 5 weeks. There's a fairly clear assumption that democracy is a good thing and that democratic elections are an essential part of development.

However, one of the things that this module starts with is the point that democracy as a term is not a binary concept – it can mean many things on a scale and no two people are likely to think about it in the same way. That doesn’t even start to take into account cultural differences, either – two people, brought up in the same way, in the same country, will still likely have different opinions.

So why is this controversial? Well, depending on your answer to this question, you have a completely different approach to enabling development. If you believe democracy is the silver bullet to all development problems (I am being purposefully extremist here) then you will engage in programs that emphasise the installation of democratic systems. If you believe development has to come first, you may accept the "downsides" of a more autocratic government and focus on (for example) economic stimulus.

Democracy, certainly in my mind ahead of the module, was something that the “civilised” world has had for a long time and the rest are now catching up with. It made me feel a bit stupid to realise I’d never really considered this assumption in detail because it should have been obvious that this is not even close to being the case. Emily Pankhurst and the suffragettes were in the 1910’s and 1920’s - i.e. less than a century ago. The civil rights movement in the US was in the 1960’s. I studied both of these in school and college. Ashamedly I never drew the dots together until recently, but democracy as we know it today is a very new concept.

Waving goodbye to autocracy?

As a history buff, I was intrigued by the way that we can talk about the three waves of democratisation:
·         Wave 1 – the 1800’s up to 1926 (i.e. basically until just after WWI)
·         Wave 2 – post-WWII until the 1960’s
·         Wave 3 – mid-70’s to mid-90’s

What was it that caused conditions to be ripe for these “waves” to take place, is there something contagious about democracy that means, like dominoes, after one state falls under its throes, more follow? It’s fairly obvious that the end of the World Wars was the marker for the start of a wave, but I wonder whether this is a correlation rather than a causal factor?

The end of conflict is obviously a time of reflection and change. It seems fairly obvious that in these periods regime change and modifications to systems of government will be more frequent. Why does this happen to be towards democracy? I assume that this is based on the prevailing assumption that democracy is a better system. 

I found the section focussing on African interpretation of democracy particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, having lived in Ghana 10 years ago, when the country was celebrating it’s anniversary of independence from the British rule, I have first-hand experience of the continent and how colonialism has had long-lasting impacts on most, if not all, of the countries there. Not least in that whenever someone in Ghana learns that you are British they respond with “Ah, our former colonial masters”!

Holding elections does not a democracy make.

This section led me to think about the dangers of mis-understanding democracy and how it could easily be manipulated to actually hinder development. In my mind this is because there is a fixation on the process, rather than the underlying “infrastructure” required for democracy.

One of the points that was made in earlier modules was that there is a pre-occupation in the West with “holding free and fair elections” and the belief that following these democracy is now instilled and the country is good to go. I can now see the obvious fallacy in that and understand that democracy is about far more than being able to vote. A vote is irrelevant if you do not have freedom of choice and it is even less powerful if the government feels no obligation to listen to the electorate. 

This brings us back to the Waves question – to know that there are waves, you need to be counting something. The numbers used to evaluate these waves are based purely on the countries holding elections (with “some reasonably credible opposition” – whatever that means!). This is obviously a very low threshold for claiming a country to be democratic, which led us to evaluate a number of other measurements.

Polity IV vs. Google N-Grams on democracy

Picking a measurement system – shall we vote on it?

Apologies for the corny heading, but it’s actually a very important topic. This boils down to two things – firstly, are you a minimalist of maximalist in your definitions of democracy? The minimalist approach is similar to that used in the graph above by Polity IV – defining the minimum set of features a nation needs to display to be called democratic. This is often easy to measure, making it useful for exercises such as this, but prone to complications when “grey-areas” come into play.

A number of organisations have tried to resolve this issue, including Freedom House, Polity IV and the Economist Intelligence Unit. Each of these have a number of issues, both statistically in how they are implemented (who is doing the rating? based on what information? How do you ensure consistency?) and also because they vary in their definitions of democracy.

One of the interesting points that came out of our class discussions was about how this measurement can also start to drive state behaviour so that they can show progress “towards democracy” and therefore benefit from additional aid from donor organisations. With that in mind, it becomes even more important that these definitions are correct and that they measure the underlying infrastructure of democracy, not just the outward indicators of it.

Measurement and me

Measurement is a particularly important topic for me. My work involves making the most of data, and how data drives the decisions that organisations take. I feel that there is a huge possibility to do more work in development through better understanding of data and that is one of my aims from this Masters. I think openness over data can only be a positive and I think that if I was to be in charge of the collation of the data in order to rate each country, I would want to make explicit the reasoning for each grade and open that up for debate. This would firstly help other researchers in their investigations, whilst also allowing for the challenge of this data by independent teams - helping to ratify and strengthen the findings. As the Internet begins to pervade all forms of life, even the most rural societies, we have enormous opportunities to gather huge amounts of data and make these classifications ever more accurate and richer – the first step in that process is about being open and candid about the reasoning behind different grading.

In the discussions over the primacy of democracy vs. development, I was intrigued by the final allocated reading by Caruthers, who claimed that the sequential theory of development before democracy was inherently flawed. I find it interesting that there appears to be such a high correlation between the two factors, but that there is no confirmed theory for one being the precursor for the other – it led me to speculate as to whether they are just inherently inter-twined. The closest analogy I could put forward is two people tied together at the waist, running a race. Both need to progress at a similar rate otherwise there will be problems. This analogy works quite well in explaining the braking nature that can occur if one starts to lag behind the other as well as painting a fairly appropriate picture of the result of one trying to run while the other stands still - disaster!


This module definitely challenged my thinking around how democracy and development are inter-linked. I was surprised at how little we seem to understand the dynamic between the two and how there is no consensus opinion on how they interact and impact on a country. I was especially interested in the approaches to measurement and how they can impact on the development discussion and I hope to take this forward into my future studies as I believe it is an area of development that has significant overlay with my current occupation.

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