Unit 2: Democracy and Development

What is democracy?

Few political concepts are as theorised and debated both in the academic and the political spheres as democracy. Traditionally meant as the government by the people, for the people and to the people, I claim here that the question that underlies every conceptualisation of democracy whether in the form of an index or a definition is the following: to which extent does a political system allow the people living within it to decide over the key aspects of their own lives?. The most decision power is held by a randomly selected citizen over the aspects of his/ her life, the more democratic a system is. The descriptive character and analytical value of the term democracy faces numerous challenges in the form of two extended rhetorical vices,

First of all democracy is often equated in the international political arena with good government and even considered to be the only acceptable type of government, particularly by Western Europeans and North-Americans. As a consequence manipulation of the term for legitimating or de-legitimating purposes happens quite often, leading to confusion and vagueness about its contents.

In this context Democracy indexes such as that of the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Freedom House or Polity IV try to translate democracy understood as the government by the people to a set of fixed parameters on which to base evaluations of democracy in the world: Polity IV chooses four parameters: the degree of openness of the party system, the universality of adult suffrage, safe and public elections, and free access to the media by all contending political parties to communicate their programmes; The Economist Intelligence Unit constructs a much more complex model based on 60 indicators grouped in four dimensions: (i) Electoral processes and pluralism; (ii) Functionning of government; (iii) Political participation; (iv) civil liberties and (v) political culture. The purpose of these indexes is to concretise and make the concept democracy operational and observable, in order to avoid manipulation and to facilitate the analysis of possible causal linkages with other variables, such as economic growth, expansion of social services, degree to which politics are pro-poor.

These indexes are though penalised by the fact that it is difficult to obtain consistent cross country information allowing us to say, for example, that the freedom of the press is greater in East Timor than in Guinea Bissau; I therefore think that democracy can only be significantly compared with itself in different moments, so that we can assess trends and anticipate what will happen.

Additionally none of the indexes tries to capture which specific individuals are participating in politics, although this is crucial. In the definition of democracy I advanced in the first paragraph, the word “randomly” is essential: It would be necessary to question whether certain collectives are systematically not participating and why, and, in my opinion, a special attention should always be directed to women, who have mostly been systematically discriminated in the exertion of public responsibilities. Since we constitute half of the population, I think a specific dimension on gender equality should be measured within every democracy index.

Democracy and development – a non-straightforward linkage

This said, what is the relationship between democracy and development? What follows is a reflection on Fritz and Menocal’s view on the matter as expressed in its 2007 paper with occasional references to other sources. The authors distinguish four ways the question has been looked at:

Development leads to democracy: This is the view of the modernist development school predominant in the 50s and 60s. According to it, democracy cannot appear without a certain degree of economic development (Fritz and Menocal, 2007: 4): “the emergence of democracy is endogenous to the process of economic and social development” (ibidem¸ 5); The authors claim though that this statement has been widely contradicted by facts, since the so-called Third Wave transitions to democracy occurred in poor countries (ibidem, 4). In his essay The ‘Sequencing Fallacy’ Thomas Carothers undertakes a comprehensive critique about this way of thinking by qualifying it as a discursive device for the legitimating of authoritarian regimes. He proposes to talk of gradualism instead of sequencing, in order not to sweep democracy out of the agenda into the agenda, reporting it indefinitely (Carothers, 2007)

China is relevant in this debate, since the view that its spectacular development will eventually have to lead to democratisation is quite widespread. However, the party and its associated elite still hold a strong grip on political power and personal and economic freedoms are substantially limited, even if China’s “economic institutions are incomparably more inclusive today than three decades ago” (Acemoglou and Robinson, 2012: 439).

This model is more or less similar to that of Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, where no sign of democratisation is visible, at least for the ordinary observer. Acemoglou and Robinson defend that the political elites of an authoritarian regime tend to block full economic deployment when it becomes dangerous for their interests.

Democracy leads to development: By putting governance first, the good governance approach is indirectly assuming that it is an adequate political system that leads to economic development and not vice-versa. However, as it was examined in the post Unit 1: The Primacy of Politics to Development of this blog, the Governance approach praxis has been discouraging in terms of its effects on development. To be fair, it is maybe the too narrowed view of politics as per Good Governance the approach that has hindered the full deployment of the benefits of democracy to development.

The perils of conceptualisations of democracy based solely on electoral processes are well documented by Paul Collier in his book Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places The author devotes one whole chapter to explain why political violence is more probable in poor “democracies” than in poor dictatorships. Paul Collier constructs the argument around the hypothesis that democratic regimes should produce less political violence because they are legitimate and responsive to their citizens, on the assumption that responsibility and legitimacy directly produce a transformation of social conducts by the government and the citizenry. However, he claims, empirical analysis invalidates the hypothesis for poor countries -he actually sets a threshold in 2.700 USD per capita income- in which, on the contrary, democracy has inverse effects -increased violence-. Collier suggests that in these contexts, a set of authoritarian measures could produce a sort of “balance” between theory and practice allowing for the emergence of legitimate and responsible rulers, who may choose to play a constructive role in the progress toward democracy regardless of their ambitions.

Democracy is a part of development: In 1999, Amartya Sen published his book Development as Freedom. Its first chapter opens up as follows: “Development can be seen, as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance” (Sen, 1999: 4). Sen’s claim is not only a conceptual one, but also a factual one. According to him, there is no contradiction between democracy and economic development. On the contrary both of them are human endeavours whose ultimate aim is to increase human freedom as a whole. Therefore the debate about what should come first makes no sense. In chapter 6 of his book “The importance of democracy” (ibidem: 146-159), he argues that we cannot know whether poor people prefer material welfare to democracy if we do not allow the poor to voice their concerns; Political freedom allows the poor to express their themselves and impede governments to rule without taking these into account; last but not least, economic freedom is the cornerstone of development.

The conceptualisation of democracy as development somehow overlaps the “democracy leads to development” argument: This, though, may be indicative of a shortcomings of Sen’s approach to development as being over-conceptual. It is undeniable that democracy and development are mutually reinforcing, to the extent that both may be considered as part of a wider “progress” of the society, but Sen’s book gives little evidence of the dynamics of this process, how it unfolds, how it happens, and what prevents it from happening. Leftwhich’s statement that it is unrealistic to assume that political and economic development goals (…) can be achieved simultaneously, at least from past historical perspective” (Menocal, 2007: 8) maybe of relevance in this context.


The aim of this exposition has been to warn against the vision of democracy and elections as a redemptive act: a sort of happy-ending for every country that has gone through substantial trouble and instability such as a war. The path to consolidated democracy is long, hazardous process with an uncertain end. Almost every informed author warn against the perils of programming elections when a state is not sufficiently consolidated. It is thus shocking that the international community insists in relying so heavily in elections for ensuring the success transitional processes after armed conflicts, as it has been the case in Libya, Irak, Afghanistan and (will be) Mali. Let us not forget that the west has intervened in most of these conflicts: Is the anticipation of elections a means to legitimize military intervention in the eyes of its own citizenry? If this is so, it is maybe us who need more information. Paradoxically our democracies have perverted effects in this case to the South.


Acemoglou, D. and Robinson, J. A. (2012) Why Nations Fail: the origins of power, prosperity and poverty, London, Profile Books

Carothers, T. (2007) ‘How Democracies Emerge: The Sequencing Fallacy’ in Journal of Democracy, 18(1): pp. 12-27

Colllier, P. (2009) Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, Harper, Harper Collins.

Fritz, V. and Menocal, A.R. (2007) ‘Developmental States in the New Millennium: Concepts and Challenges for a New Aid Agenda’, in Development Policy Review, 25(5): pp. 531-552

Sen, Amartya (1991) Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New

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