Does Democracy Deliver Development?

In the mountains of Afghanistan, American capitalism won its jihad against Soviet communism. Moscow’s tentacles could no longer cling onto those imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain. The Velvet Revolution set Czechoslovakia ablaze. The Berlin Wall fell. The end of history was proclaimed. Fukuyama predicted that the marriage between liberal democracy and free market would an end to absolute poverty. While liberal democracy has reached all corners of the globe, few countries are lands of milk of honey.

Democracy must stand up to scrutiny. Tal Tyagi attempts to explain why South Africa has resided over rampant poverty in spite of consistently having fair elections since the fall of apartheid while Eritrea has been one of the fastest growing economies on the planet despite having never held elections.

The demographics of Africa’s horn are far more conducive to development than the sub-tropical south. Contemporary South Africa was forged in the wake of anti-apartheid struggle while Eritrea was born in the wake of a three-decade liberation struggle against Ethiopia.

The overriding shared circumstance is the timing of their independence, 1993 and 1994 respectively. This was at the height of what is known as ‘democracy’s third wave’ where all across the globe, democracy surpassed dictatorship as the dominant form of governance. Thanks to this global shift, we now live in a world where there are well over a hundred democracies. The prosperity this promised can be tested by comparing one nation which embraced the zeitgeist and the other which rejected it.

©Wasfi Akab/Creative Commons License

©Wasfi Akab/Creative Commons License

In South Africa, albeit amidst ferocious political violence, free elections were held in 1994. The incredible 95% voter turnout demonstrated popular confidence in the process. However, democratisation did not save the South African economy from violent decline. Between 1987 and 1995 mining shred 30% of its workforce and employment levels in gold and coal shrank by 35% and 45% respectively.

Alternatively, and ironically, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front renamed itself the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice in 2001. This cosmetic change was followed by the cancelling of scheduled elections, the banning of opposition and closure of all independent media. Nonetheless, Eritrea could boast a stunning 7% GDP growth while South Africa’s was only 0.6%.

Democracy in South Africa has not solved endemic unemployment despite all parties running on a platform of job creation. The last figures indicate that unemployment is at a shocking 24.9% in South Africa, compared to a respectable 6.3% in Eritrea.

Could democracy be the sacrificial lamb that the ‘third world’ needs to toss to the slaughter?

The electoral arena seems to reward slogans and charisma over carefully considered policies. Being electible does not guarantee the ability to handle public policy, this is reflected by President Mbeki’s questioning of the link between HIV and AIDS and the fact that in 2012, 6.1 million people were infected. In Eritrea HIV rates have halved and only 0.8% of the population are infected. Amazingly, this is even lower than HIV prevalence in Washington DC!

African post-colonial scholar, Mugyenyi, provides a potential explanation for the failures of democracy despite the myriad causal promises made: ‘developing countries are wobbly in their foundations… In these conditions, open democratic politics can be divisive and destabilizing because society lacks social cohesion.’ Despite being made up of nine different ethnic groups, having nine languages and being half Muslim, half Christian, no major inborn conflict has ever occurred. Contrastingly racial tension in South Africa is rife, something illustrated by Kayum Ahmed (CEO of the South Africa Human Rights Commission): ‘Race remains a critical issue for all of us as South Africans…’ The rise of white supremacism reflects the sentiment that the new order only represents the black majority.

©David Stanley/Creative Commons License

Other scholars believe the economic virtues of dictatorship arise out of their capacity to insulate themselves from special interests, such as large firms or unions. Symbiosis between big business and the state is alive and well in South Africa. Lobbying and veto powers wielded by capital are a major source of corruption and ultimately, a major impediment to development.

Marais, expert in South African political economy, cites that ‘by 1996 the ANC government’s economic policy was geared to service the aspirations of the emerging black bourgeoisie at the expense of the impoverished majority’s hope for a less iniquitous social order.’ The ANC has moved into the pockets of black billionaires such as Patrice Motsepe – platinum magnate and major party benefactor. Democracy may have swept away the old apartheid system but it has not prevented wealth apartheid.

Policy-making in Eritrea is seemingly insultated from damaging economic interests of the market. The policy of ‘self-reliant development’ revolves around instrumental intervention of the sovereign state’s highly selective engagement with foreign investment. Proof this development model works lies in Eritrea’s position as one of only four countries to have achieved six of the eight millennium development goals.

Qualities of technocratic expertise, cohesion and self-reliance realised by the marriage of state-capitalism to ruthless authoritarianism is by no means isolated to the Horn of Africa. In the sixties, Eritrean dictator, Isaias Afwerki, received training in China (itself a country which has brought millions out of poverty without liberal democracy) and now his regime is something of a satellite state. The growth this model has managed to deliver is not something to be overlooked in a world where basic needs such as clean water, food and electricity are still unaccessible for millions.

Overall, if liberal democracy is to ride the storm of the 21st century, leaders need to ensure a functioning civil service which is capable of managing rather than just promising policy. Structures that guard against the tyranny of the majority have to be strengthened and the prostitution of governments to special interests must come to an end. However, the case for democracy can no longer be made as an economic one. If it is to be defended, it should be defended on spiritual grounds, on the grounds of human dignity.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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