Democracy, Authoritarianism and Development

So the surprise winner of the Rwandan presidential election is … Paul Kagame! Who would have thought it? The Economist epitomises the dominant view in the Western media as Paul Kagame has gone from aid darling to the flawed leader we’re stuck with. Texas in Africa has a much more nuanced discussion. I note striking parallels with how everyone viewed Museveni ten years ago. The sad thing is that these are often popular leaders who could win a fair election by a country mile, so resorting to the strong-arm tactics seems awfully short-sighted.

The interesting comparisons are with the more contested polities in neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania. Some Tanzanians (admittedly a rather small sample size) would seem to prefer a strong man who would stamp out corruption and bring much faster economic development.

“Is Africa ready for democracy?” is one of those horrendously patronising debates which comes around every now and then. My response is usually to suggest that I am not about to tell any disenfranchised African keen for their voice to be heard that their society is just too immature for democracy. However, there are some interesting observations that can be made in relation to this.

Firstly, strong men such as Museveni and Kagame have become popular precisely by maintaining a strong hand on the tiller, part of which involves taking a hard line against official corruption. News stories of coups often report initially a high level of public support for the intervention because ordinary citizens are fed up with corruption and hope this new broom will be different. (Such support, e.g. in Guinea, often fades pretty quickly.) Reducing corruption and increasing efficiency of government (as Museveni, Kagame and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia have done to different degrees) also greatly increases the efficacy of development aid, and is one of the oft quoted reasons why the donors continue to hold their noses and deal with such leaders.*

Secondly, many outcomes of economic development are viewed as important to a well functioning democracy, e.g. a large middle class, an educated population, and a strong civil society including diverse independent media. The Chinese government have long argued that their citizens are far more interested in economic development than airy-fairy human rights. Indeed I have noticed international commentary gradually becoming more intrigued as to when the tipping point in favour of democracy in China will come – the implication being that the pressure which is building up cannot be held off forever. Is there a greater good to be found in that argument? Development first, then (properly functioning) democracy later?

Apart from the obvious moral issues, there are two big flaws that I can see in this argument. Firstly that as a big man stays in power for longer and longer, they have to subvert the system more and more, and patronage politics returns in force. Thus initial gains in eliminating corruption are in time reversed, albeit with possibly a different crowd whose “turn it is to eat”. The second argument surrounds long term stability and the succession, e.g. as recently elucidated by Chris Blattman with respect to Ethiopia.

If civil society etc are strong enough, and the strong man himself can perhaps be persuaded of the error of his ways, then it might in the long run be worth suffering the authoritarianism. But the example of Zimbabwe also shows us what can happen when a strong man (and the patronage system which supports him) is determined to hold on to power whatever the costs.

In conclusion, I am not sure what is the optimal approach. Since my opinion doesn’t matter much that seems just fine. Most bilateral aid agencies also seem caught between two stools, berating sham democracy when they see it, but making minimal adjustments to the flow of  funds. As a British citizen I do have a right to an opinion as to whether this is the right way for DFID to act, but as for the governments in Africa … (alert! platitude ahead) … well that surely has to be for their own citizens to decide.

* In the various indicators does this come out as good or bad governance? Single index measures always cover up more than they reveal.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. […] his term limit last year; instead the MDC are still stuck with him. Nonetheless, as with the democracy versus authoritarianism debate, it is hard to tell such activists that just because their country is poor they cannot enjoy high […]

    Reply

  2. Posted by Agent Orange on October 31, 2011 at 8:56 am

    MJ, great post! I do share many of your opinions. However, I didn’t really understand what is “developmental authoritarianism” and how to account for its increasing popularity? Hope you can give me a solid response!

    Reply

    • Dear Agent Orange, I don’t think I used the term “developmental authoritarianism”, so I am ill-equipped to advise you, but I am imagine it means simply authoritarianism justified in the name of development.

      Reply

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