Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Aid as democracy enabler?

Whilst on the subject of disagreeing with Angus Deaton*, I re-read Chris Blattman’s commentary recently. Blattman made an interesting point about aid supporting the emergence of democracy in post-conflict situations such as Uganda and Liberia where Blattman has worked. The basic sense of his argument, that aid money helped those countries get back on their feet having chosen a proto-democratic path, seems clear enough. Clearly the link is not automatic: recent events in South Sudan show that just having lots of aid money around does not ensure a steady upward path, but I am more than happy to buy the basic idea, that, other things being equal, aid would help and potentially help quite a lot with the transition.

This line of reasoning can easily be extended. Just as the presence, even if largely wasted, of a big aid programme can provide cover for small local NGOs to do good things (I’ve seen cases of this), so maybe the promise of aid money can provide some cover to would be democratizers. I.e. at the margin, the presence of Western donors with deep pockets might plausibly increase the attractiveness of democracy to poor country elites (obviously the same cannot be said of the Chinese). Probably impossible to prove, but it is one of those enticing thoughts that you can see politicians grabbing on to.**

On the negative side of the ledger, the incentive value of lots of aid money would be paradoxically lower when accompanied by strong anti-corruption measures. But on the positive side such an incentive could be seen as the first step on a whole ladder of rising levels of cash support for good behaviour such as I’ve mused about before. It’s never going to happen, of course, and even in the case of democracy, I am sure all parties would deny the cash offer was anything as grubby as a bribe. But if Deaton is concerned with the theoretical undermining of the social contract caused by aid, then this is a nice theoretical riposte.

Next week, back to the messy real world in which bribes are paid all the time, even if they’re not called bribes …

* On the subject of international development aid. He can keep his intellectual authority status on other bits of development economics.

** I guess the Neo-Cons under Bush did exactly that!


Party connotations

What do you think of when you read or hear the phrase “ruling party”? Would you describe the Conservatives in Britain as the “ruling party”? Or the Socialists in France? What about Congress in India? (The situation in the USA is obviously complicated by the division of powers.)

The “ruling party” is one of those disarming phrases that is apparently neutral but comes loaded with additional implications. And yet, in my experience use of the term is not restricted to Western ‘cultural imperialists’, but is frequently used by local political observers.

I venture a conclusion: if contemporary commentary on a country regularly involves mention of the term “ruling party” then its democracy lacks a certain vigour.

Decentralisation Blues

The World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan reckons that there needs to be real political demand for capacity building to truly transform dysfunctional developing country institutions, and avoid the trap of isomorphic mimicry. He is surely correct in this assertion, but I fear the rose-tinted spectacles return when he advocates the benefits of decentralisation:

“One reason [for doubting local authorities capacity to manage financial resources] may be that no one has given local authorities the chance to deal with funds.  There may have been no demand for financial management at the local level because the central government has told you what to spend.  If you give them the chance to make the decisions, then they might actually build the capacity or hire that capacity because it’s something they can decide for themselves.

Moreover, if the local governments are accountable to the local population, they will have to build capacity really fast. They can no longer put the blame on central government if things don’t work well.”

To be fair to Devarajan he does qualify his enthusiasm with the requirement that local governments should be accountable to the local population. The trouble is that in the decentralisation that I have witnessed in least developed countries I have never seen much sign of that condition coming true, and certainly not any evidence of it leading to substantially increased capacity. Instead, where local official venality and low capacity are the rule rather than the exception, as is the case around here, such pushes as there are to improve service delivery come from above, although even here there’s a lot more political rhetoric than practical action. Decentralisation thus leads to temporary petty fiefdoms that can go largely unmolested so long as performance is not notably worse than elsewhere in the country (and sometimes even when it is).

This rose-tinted view of decentralisation is not restricted to ill-informed denizens of the embassy district and big donor agencies. I think we field operatives can sometimes be equally guilty in assuming that just because community leaders are that much closer to their constituents they will therefore be that much more responsive to their needs, or that bad leaders will get voted out of office. For even at the community level base party politics and local rivalries so often trump technocratic concerns of executive competence.

I would suggest that demand for good services is predicated on at least some idea of what they should look like and sense that they are properly due. By this I mean not just that a community should want the service, and be prepared to air their grievance to anyone who cares to come by and ask (very common around here), but that their sense of justice should be inflamed at the breach to the perceived social contract, and, as an aggrieved party, they are prepared to act seriously to obtain redress. Consuming many government services, e.g. sending one’s children to the local school, might be a largely passive undertaking, but service quality depends upon a community’s aptitude to pursue their due proactively, and in turn for the rest of society not to regard such direct action as disproportionate.

Some would translate all of that as the need for a large middle class, and trot out that old canard about democracy not being workable without one. I am prepared to be a bit more optimistic than that, but I think we should be cautious about expecting demand for service provision to drive improvements in local capacity. There will always be counter-examples, usually championed by exceptional local leaders, but countrywide I wouldn’t pin your hopes on anything other than slow progress, with plenty of steps back interspersed with the forward ones. Social change is slow and messy.

Hat Tip: Lee Crawfurd

Paedophile Priests and Climate Change Politics

An odd couple of subjects to pair up, you might think, but I think there is a powerful hidden link, and it’s got nothing to do with the crazy conspiracy theories which right wing nuts have cooked up over climate change science.

Instead I’m talking about the steady decline over the last few decades of respect for authority in western democracies. Twenty years ago the Catholic church could get away with covering up its paedophile priests as few people were prepared to challenge the authority of either the church or local ‘pillars of the community’. Now we are far more prepared to question those in authority, even when the subject matter challenges a number of taboos.

Ironically, one of those most associated with the backlash against the idea that well-educated elites knew what was best for us, Richard Nixon, signed into force some landmark pieces of environmental regulation, including the US Clean Air Act of 1970. Now, however, Nixon’s intellectual heirs appear convinced of their God given right to pump as much carbon into the atmosphere as they like, especially if it’s going to make Texan oil men rich. “How dare scientists presume to tell us how to run our country / businesses!” seems to be their basic tenet.

This change in attitudes has brought about so many benefits, such as exposing the shameful behaviour of a tiny minority of Catholic priests, that we wouldn’t want to put the genie back in the bottle even if we could. It does have some significant downsides, though, extending from the relatively mundane – e.g. patients questioning doctors’ diagnoses – to popular distrust of the EU and the international politics of climate change.

The sad thing is just how far on the wrong side of history these climate change deniers are. If a stubborn friend or relative declares themselves quite well when the doctor has just diagnosed them as suffering the flu all sensible people try to talk them into a bit of bed rest. We instinctively recognise the expertise of the doctor, and yet similar expertise on behalf of scientists has been successfully questioned by an extremely powerful, but extremely selfish lobby. That they have been able to get away with  it, I think, is partly down to the decline in respect for authority in the West. No longer are we prepared to just swallow the medicine that the doctor prescribes us.

We vaccinate our children against measles not because we know for sure that without the vaccination that they’ll die from the disease, but because we understand enough of the science to know that the vaccination massively reduces the risks. Now climate change deniers wish to stop the world taking out a similar insurance policy that will cover all of their and all of our children. The Catholic church has found itself on the wrong side of history several times over the course of its history. In twenty years or so the climate change deniers will be similarly vilified. They are just plain wrong.

In case you missed them – the CdI edition

A few more things that caught my eye during my post-festive season catch-up on happenings in the blogosphere.

  1. Jina Moore gets out the dictionary on the current turmoil in Côte d’Ivoire – a must read.
  2. Charles Onyango-Obbo wonders whether we might be heading towards the inevitable in Côte d’Ivoire, and whether, in that respect, that electoral strife might be a good thing. (H/T Jina Moore in an earlier post.)
  3. Chris Blattman features various others’ suggestions that put that idea to shame.

Overall, despite there being reasons for optimism about the way the rest of the world has got its act together over Côte d’Ivoire (in contrast to the dithering over similar electoral shenanigans in Kenya a couple of years ago), it does rather seem as if there is no easy option. Even if one accepts the rather one-sided view of things which predominates in the Western media – Outtara is surely no saint – the more satisfying, morally-robust route to military intervention seems to threaten catastrophe on the ground. (Anyone remember Iraq?) And promising Gbagbo an amnesty won’t do much to soothe the worries of his various lieutenants and lesser supporters who are likely equally guilty of various human rights variations.

I’m not sure I hold out too much hope for Côte d’Ivoire; from my remote (and uninformed) vantage point it seems likely to be rather messy for some time to come. But an international community that stays firm may deter the next African leader who thinks they can steal an election. Popular tyrants like Kagame and Zenawi will stay in power because, well, they’re still pretty popular amongst wide swathes of their respective countrymen, but more contested strong man polities (Madagascar? H/T to Chris Blattman and various others who have already made this point) may give more consideration to stepping back from the brink before it is too late. Ultimately, to me, that is the appeal of the ICC. There may not be much we can do about the present generation of oppressors come mass murderers, but we can put off the next generation, and that is a worthy goal.

As for redrawing Africa’s borders, we should not forget what a complex place it is. We should remember the chaos of Europe’s religious wars following the Reformation, as well as more recent tragedies over the partition of India and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Determined leaders may attempt to create facts on the ground, but things are going to have to get very messy indeed before splitting most countries will make sense – so messy that we should be intervening long before it gets that bad. From a perspective of complete ignorance I would suggest one possible exception: DR Congo just seems too vast and unmanageable a place that division might just be the only feasible option.

Of course, on most if not all of the above I have little actual experience, so please feel free to put me to rights in the comments section below. Alternatively just go and read people like Jina Moore and Laura Seay who do know what they’re talking about.

What is democracy good for?

(A coda to my earlier post on Democracy, Authoritarianism and Development. Naïveté warning for political scientists: you may wish to skip this post.)

At the most immediate level it occurred to me that democracy confers the following advantages (I won’t go into the disadvantages here):

  1. A free contest of political ideas and approaches to government.
  2. A safety valve to eject unpopular or corrupt governments from power.
  3. A mechanism for delivering a smooth succession of power.

However, in many developing countries none of these work very well. Since the end of the cold war (during which time developing country political leaders had to adopt the language of their respective superpower sponsors’) it has become difficult to spot much in the way of policy differences between rival political parties (although the same could also be said for the UK), with all espousing economic development along the standard donor-supported model. Most politicians principle policy differences seems to be that they (and/or their tribe/religion etc.) should be in power, and not the other guys. Even in Zimbabwe, where ostensibly there are big political differences over land, many commentators have suggested this is just a cover for Mugabe to stay in power.

A safety valve against poor governance and corruption is very useful, but, similarly to the non-policy differences, too often it seems that when it comes to governance in developing countries the more things change, the more they stay the same. Typically a newly elected government  (e.g. Malawi and Zambia in recent years) spends several years pursuing corruption cases against those voted out of office, before dramatically losing their enthusiasm for the fight when the next set of targets are their own officials.

The lack of a clear separation between party and state in many cases also hampers the operation of the safety valve, which, moreover, relies, to a certain extent, on the third advantage; a smooth succession. However, election results in developing countries are so often contested that it has got difficult for those at a distance to ascertain who is crying wolf and who has a genuine grievance. (The recent election in Somaliland appears to be a welcome exception.)

I am not sure that any of the above necessarily constitute a solid argument against democracy given the clear perils of authoritarianism. I have probably also missed some important advantages of democracy; please post any suggestions in the comments.

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.

%d bloggers like this: