Wednesday 24 August 2011

Against lazy claims against democracy in development

The 'Africa analyst' Michelle Sieff  has recently argued in The African Lions: An Authoritarian Challenge to Development Theory* that democracy is not necessary for development. She identifies  three 'African Lions' - Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia - that are not democracies but are achieving good development results. Therefore Development Theory must be overthrown? I think not.

The first problem with all this is that the African Lions - despite the catchy moniker - do not really resemble the authoritarian Asian Tigers of the 1970's (Singapore, Taiwan, S. Korea and Hong Kong) or 1990's (Indonesia, Malaysia, China) in their achievements. Sieff mentions for example that,
In all three countries, total GDP more than doubled between 1989 and 2009
Yes, but the population of each of those countries also more than doubled. GDP per capita growth was pretty much flat until recently.  It is in fact hard to see the African Lions as standing out from the sub-Saharan Africa crowd on any measure of human development or poverty reduction as stunning successes (or failures) in need of explanation. 

Sieff doesn't mention the real reason why Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia are of special interest. It is because a few years ago they were the darlings of the development industry exactly because they claimed to be democracies. Now that it is clear that they are autocracies, albeit relatively effectively governed, the development industry is split between condemning them and continuing to work with them. The real lesson here for the development industry is to stop buying into the PR of nasty little regimes and getting over-excited by short-term results that appear to fulfil their fantasies.

The second problem is with Sieff's claim that her 3 African Lions present a challenge to Development Theory. Sieff cites a book by the Nobel prize winning economist-philosopher Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom, 1999) in which she believes that Sen argues that democracy is necessary to achieve broader development goals such as those incorporated into the Human Development Index (literacy, longevity, GDP per capita). Therefore if her African lions succeed in achieving Millenium Development Goals/HDI improvements, she believes she has disproved Sen's theory.

But this is based on a gross misreading of Sen's arguments for democracy, none of which are actually addressed by Sieff's argument. Sen is something of a hero of mine, so I take this misrepresentation seriously (but hopefully not pedantically). Sen actually defends democracy on 3 grounds.

1. Intrinsic value

Democracy, and political rights and freedoms generally, are constitutive of human development. They are good things in themselves. They do not need to be justified, though apparently they do need to be defended. If the African Lions are so great, why can't they have democracy too and be even better?

Sieff recognises that to justify the exclusion of democracy from development achievement she must make some kind of argument for democracy's negative instrumental value: i.e. democracy gets in the way of achieving other development goals so there is a kind of trade-off. Thus,
If it is true that commitment to monitoring and accountability in Rwanda and decentralization in Ethiopia have improved service delivery, the question then becomes: Are these advantages incompatible with greater political and civil liberties?
It is difficult to take this question seriously. It is hard to understand how monitoring, accountability or decentralisation could be things that only an autocracy can do. To the extent that they depend upon bottom-up participation, they seem eminently democratic in spirit. And indeed the most cursory inspection of how the real world works - even within the handful of properly democratic countries in sub-Saharan Africa - shows that democracies can do all those things.

2. Instrumental value

Sen argued that democracy can be instrumentally useful to the furthering of other development goals by giving voice to the poor and vulnerable and providing incentives to leaders to take their concerns seriously.  But his only empirical claim is the mild one that democracy enhances economic security - i.e. it prevents or mitigates economic disasters. It doesn't automatically give you high economic growth or HDI scores (also the opinion of the UN Development Programme, as noted by Sieff). For example, no democracy has ever had a famine. India's run of awful famines ended the moment the British left, because, although flawed in many ways, India's democratic governments have strong incentives to respond to such extreme and urgent problems (which are in fact quite easy to prevent, if you want to). That contrasts with authoritarian China under Mao which achieved the biggest famine in history (30-45 million dead).

It should be obvious that Sen's argument does not imply that autocracies are unable to prevent a famine if they want to. The way to falsify Sen's claim would be to prove that a democracy had failed to prevent a significant famine. Nevertheless by means a logical pirouette Sieff seems to conclude the opposite.
Ethiopia's ability to avert a famine, even under a regime considered "authoritarian," raises serious questions about the validity of Sen's theory. 
It is not news that some authoritarian countries have managed to achieve some nice things for their people - and sometimes done so better than some democratic countries - and this was being said about S.E. Asia long before Sieff thought to say it about Africa. It is also irrelevant. The fundamental difference between democracies and autocracies is the accountability of governments to their people. The fact that some autocracies with messianic leaders like Zenawi or Kagame happen to treat their people well in some respects is not empirical evidence against the value of democracy. It just means that their people got lucky, for now. For what could the people of Rwanda and Ethiopia do about their heavily militarised governments if their messianic leaders ever changed their minds? Museveni's recent brutal treatment of peaceful protests shows the autocrat's true priority: retaining power at all costs.

3. Constructing values

Sen points out that democracy also has a constructive role in allowing societies to debate and come to new understandings about their concerns and priorities. Autocracies shut down that debate. At one point Sieff discusses a three-way conversation between Kagame's government, Human Rights Watch, and the World Bank about Rwanda's Community Justice programme for dealing with its tens of thousands of suspected genocidaires. But the people of Rwanda have been systematically excluded from any role in that debate about what justice requires. Even public discussion of this issue is a crime.

As Sieff says,
The apparent decoupling of democracy from human development in the East African lions is fueling increasingly bitter and confusing policy debates.
The development industry is replete with wishful thinking. Sometimes that is to the good - after all development depends on imagining a path to a better future. But it also embeds a wishful approach to the hard facts of development that is intimately connected with the cycle of enthusiasm and abject failure that repeats every few years. If one sees Sieff's article as directed to reforming the illusions of those who work in it, particularly for the smaller NGOs, then its polemical character has some merit.

But as a contribution to the informed debate Sieff's article is no more than yet another distracting exercise in punditry. It fails in scholarship by seriously misrepresenting nearly everything it discusses, while cherry-picking bits and pieces of data and theory that suit its thesis. It fails in originality, since it merely repeats a decade old claim about S.E. Asia, while refusing to learn from that debate or consider how well it really fits here. It fails in argument: its empirical conclusions are poorly supported even by the evidence given, while its theoretical deductions are invalid.

*Gated, but appears to have been reposted here