Is Democracy Ideal for Development?

The topic I want to explore today has the tendency to stir-up intense argument, but this is just my opinion on the subject matter and is by no means a standard.

In comparing India to China, development economist Yasheng Huang raised a very interesting points and asks how China’s authoritarian rule contributed to its astonishing economic growth; leading me to wonder : Is democracy actually holding Nigeria back from taking the leap it is capable of taking?

This question may seem somewhat absurd and uncivilized in the 21st century, as an international survey (2005) indicates that 8 in 10 citizens in countries around the world voted democracy as the most suitable and most preferable system of government. These preferences are reflective in international laws such as the human right universal declaration of rights to participation of all citizens in government by means of choosing a representative and freedom of expression.

Democracy propels equality and motivates government to focus on the needs of its citizens; once income affects the excluded, democracy spends 20-50 percent more than any other form of government on public service, indicating that democracy has an equalizing effect on power relations between different minority, ethnic and religious groups which could aid poverty eradication, the very essence of development.

Globally, new democracies are unable to introduce and implement strident structural policies that can promote economic growth and development. Studies show that economies of democracies in Latin America and Africa have stagnated, while Asian nations such as China, Vietnam and South Korea are sky-rocketing under authoritarian governments.

Over the last 20 years, China has grown three times faster than most developing countries including Nigeria in terms of infrastructure and GDP, this comparism draws on the two countries population advantage in respective continents. The simple logic is China has Shanghai and Nigeria has Lagos as economic capital cities; comparing the picture of these two cities brings to notice extreme disparities in infrastructural development. The idea here is that the Chinese government can act above the rule of law and plan for long term growth therefore can evict or destroy (authoritarian government) illegal settlements and structures whereas in Nigeria the endless national assembly debates and the unlimited public opinion(democracy) comes into play i.e. the ongoing makoko demolition debates.

Yasheng Huang asked “why do economist have this love affair with authoritarian government”? Drawing on Yasheng’s illustration with Shanghai’s theory of economic growth the following is apparent;

  1. It is no rocket science that development requires strong and effective government to transcend ideas such as the MDG, vision 2020 to reality period.
  2. State Ownership; especially of landed properties enables government the ability to build and roll-out infrastructure, however in Lagos, politicians, ex-politicians, friends of politicians (elites) and the private sector own strategic lands and properties and act as rent-seekers to the government and the city at large i.e. the leasing of the Lekki toll gate to a private company reaping off Lagosian, where as government would have generated additional income for the state through that avenue at a much cheaper rate as well as oil-well ownership by the elites in the Niger-delta.
  3. The picture of  Shanghai and Lagos presented at the end of this post showcases the conditions of infrastructure in the two cities,  supporting the notion that infrastructure is paramount to economic growth which will stimulate development. If you agree with this assumption then you will support the argument that strong government which in most cases cannot be democratic is necessary if you disagree then you most likely to put less emphasis on strong government however, it is important to note that economic growth precede infrastructural development. Furthermore, electricity plays a major role in infrastructure and the lack of it can stifle investment (growth) opportunities. To illustrate this point, comparing Nigeria (160Million + population)  produces 10,000 megawatts of electricity while Ghana (30Million population) produces 5000, looking at this analysis which of these countries have grown the most and why? But this is not the point as both countries operate a democratic system of government and Ghana by virtue of smaller population size can make the argument for the challenges accompanied by managing a larger population.

Back to the subject matter, examining the principles of development processes suggests that democracy could hinder development after-all especially for fragile states like Nigeria, as fragile states cannot afford the luxury of dancing around elements of consent. In addition, defeated candidates often pose threats to the success of the ruling government as suggested as as an explanation by some theorist on the on-going Boko Haram crises in northern Nigeria. Furthermore, it is challenging for democratic governments to implement radical changes redistribution through land reforms even where the advantage can trigger economic take off as it did in Taiwan and South Korea. In evidence, a democratic government is less likely to get away with radical anti-poverty reforms that were implemented by the Pinochet dictator in Chile in this case opponent such as trade leaders were killed, jailed as part of the free market overhaul for the economy.  For this to be effective, such government have to know specifically what it intends to achieve and how, most importantly have a long term goal for such plan, I dare to say that authoritarian government have the capacity to do this than a democracy can.

Economist Ha-Joon Chang suggests that ‘market and democracy clash at a fundamental level’, as democracy operates on one man, one vote while the market runs on the one Naria one vote principles. Chang’s notion illustrates that most 19th century liberals opposed democracy because as it is believed to be incompatible with the free markets principles. It is argued that democracy creates room for the poor majority to introduce policies that would exploit the rich minority i.e. progressive income tax, nationalization of private properties thus, destroying the chances for wealth creation but in most fragile states as in the case of ineffective democracy this process can take up to 100 years as government is not interested in serving the interest of the public.

The most credible hypothesis is that economic growth prompts democracy than vice-versa. For example in South Korea economic growth brought about the generation of educated business elites who were unimpressed with state involvement in their affairs, a scenario many have predicted will soon arise in China as its middle class continues to grow. This hypothesis raise cumbersome questions; does the campaign for democratic government in developing countries bring more freedom at the expense of development as in the case of Nigeria, does the quest for development justify authoritarian government and human rights denial? And if we could choose one, which should it be? Since the re-inception of a democratic government in 1999, it has had different impacts on citizenship participation, freedom of speech and access to information, the challenge remains stagnate and or slow growth and understanding how institutions, events, geography and politics interact to determine a better outcome under democratic governance.

A conversation with a friend suggested that Nigeria be leased back to Britain for 20 years to raid the system and breathe new life into our system of governance as military rule didn’t work for us and democracy is even more ridiculous, what do you think?



About rebeccaidd

Development expert, exploring inequality research in Nigeria! Passionate about public policy! Follow me on twitter @enobong
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5 Responses to Is Democracy Ideal for Development?

  1. Very interesting analysis, although you tried really hard to sit on the fence. Makes alot of sense actually……

  2. Donald Cavanaugh says:

    Ambrose of Milan stated; the human race grows with kindness and justice. The counter to that is greed and power. people must do what is “fitting and virtuous.” Balancing what is virtuous? Moral Dignity and Integrity of life, and what is useful? Conveniences of life or wealth/honors/opportunties for decisionmaker/individual government body. Right judgement would pick the first for the future and benefit of all. Historian Charles Van Doren? stated a democracy has the “rule of law” not rule of man from English revolution, Jefferson’s “All men are created equal,” and Lincoln’s call for “Government of the people, for the people, and by the people.”

    • rebeccaidd says:

      I complete agree, but in a poverty stricken society, moral judgement does not exist every man for himself even if that means, oppressing others for personal gains.

  3. You are such an intelligent lady, I was wondering if I could have your contact and are you single?

  4. Pingback: Is Democracy Ideal for Development? | YNaija OPINION

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