Unit 2: Democracy and development politics

In this posting I take a look at democracy, what it means for a country to be democratic and what the relationship is between democracy and development, particularly in Africa.

Meanings of democracy

What democracy actually means is a contested and (frequently) debated issue. How high should we set the bar when defining whether countries are democratic or not? Is the holding of elections sufficient? Does it matter if those elections are peaceful? How much interference in the electoral process from the party in power should we accept? Should we be looking at broader issues of voice in local governance? The presence of strong parties of opposition? What about the rule of law and effective institutions? Freedom of expression, assembly and the media?

Joseph Schumpeter defined democracy as “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (Schumpeter, 1942). This rather narrow conception of what democracy means has been added to by various thinkers over the years. Dahl, for example, expanded the definition to include the protection of basic civil liberties, freedom from repression, freedom of expression and assembly (Dahl, 1971). Since the 1980s, with the emergence of many ‘new’ democracies the focus has shifted to consolidation of the democratic system and the definition of democracy has been broadened to place more focus on “the role and importance of accountability” (ODI, 2007:2) or ‘personal freedoms’ (Sen, 1999).

In reading these thinkers I have come to agree with the ‘thicker’ definitions of democracy. I try to imagine myself living in a country where I could participate in elections but couldn’t, for example, protest against the government I had elected. To me, such a country should not be labelled a democracy. Elections are only a means of selecting leadership for a country. What that government then does with that power is what determines whether a country is democratic or not.

But what characteristics does a country have to portray in order to be labelled a democracy? The majority of commentators now seem to recognise that there is a democracy continuum from not very democratic (think autocratic nations like North Korea), all the way to very democratic (Norway regularly features near the top of democracy rankings). As such, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, “half of the world lives under a democracy of some form” while “only 15 percent of countries enjoy full democracy” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2013:2).

Measuring democracy

Below, I have set out some examples of attempts to rank or index countries according to how democratic they are, or the quality of democracy within a county. The methodology used to create each index reflects the values of its creators, so one has to consider these with a critical eye, but each offers a useful an interesting perspective:

Democracy Rankinghttp://www.democracyranking.org A democracy index based on political, social and economic factors developed by Vienna-based Democracy Ranking Association.

Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index: 
http://www.eiu.com A democracy index developed on the basis of expert evaluations of 60 factors from five areas (electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, government function and capability, political participation and political culture) in 167 countries).

Freedom in the World Reports: 
http://www.freedomhouse.org Ratings of political and civil rights around the world. Developed by American NGO Freedom House. Each country and territory is assigned a numerical rating (1-7) for political rights and a rating for civil liberties. 

Each of these rankings, because of the different methodologies they use, produce different results. But there are some themes that emerge:

  • Perhaps expectedly, Nordic countries feature near the top of all rankings of democracy and freedom. They are usually joined by fellow Europeans like Switzerland and the Netherlands in the top ten while Australia, New Zealand and Canada also receive high marks.

  • There is some reasonable consistency at the bottom of the rankings too, with North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Uzbekistan all featuring in the bottom ten of the EIU ranking and receiving the Freedom House 7/7 score for political and civil liberties. Syria is the only of these countries assessed by Democracy Ranking and it is second last in their index (Democracy Ranking, 2012).

There are also some interesting contrasts between the different indices:

  • The EIU index pushes European countries further down the rankings where they are heavily indebted, have ‘weak governments’ or have suffered as a result of the eurozone crisis. Countries like Spain, Portugal, France and Greece are ranked 25th, 26th, 28th,33rd respectively (EIU, 2013), compared with 16th, 18th, 17th and 32nd in the Democracy Ranking (Democracy Ranking, 2012). I found these results really fascinating because I hadn’t previously associated economic factors with democracy. However, on reflection, it seems one might create a convincing argument that if a country is more economically unstable then its government may have to resort to more anti-democratic measures in order to preserve the stability of the economy. The recent Cypriot personal savings levy is a good example of a government in dire financial straits choosing to resort to a policy measure that impinges on individual freedom. Similarly, if economic factors can drive political instability then this could have implications for democracy.

  • India is 38th in the EIU compared with 72nd in the Democracy Ranking (ibid.). This difference may be caused by the fact that the Democracy Ranking takes into account non-political dimensions such as health and gender which adversely affect the India score. Similarly, South Africa is 35 places lower in the Democracy Ranking index (66) than in the EIU (35). I found these results interesting too because they highlighted a broader definition of democracy than I had previously reflected on. I really agree with the inclusion of gender equality in any measure of democracy because if freedoms are only really available to half of a country’s population then it shouldn’t be labelled a democracy. However, taking other development indicators – such as measures of health – into account is something I am more conflicted on. This implies that low income countries are less able to be democratic than rich countries. Again, though, I can see some merit in this argument as individuals’ capacity to fully participate in a democracy may be inhibited by factors of under-development.

Trends in democratisation

In 1991, following the events surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union, Samuel Huntington defined three waves of democratisation, with each of the first two waves being followed by some reversal of the democratic trend (Huntington, 1991). I was initially quite skeptical of this rather neat characterisation of global democracy. Why would democratic change happen in multiple countries at similar times? But then I reflected on the fact that Huntington’s waves in the 20th century largely took place following global events or shifts in geopolitical dynamics that made it more likely for democratic revolutions to take place; such the Second World War and the collapse of Communism. I also reflected on whether democratic change in one country made it more likely that democracy might spread elsewhere – thus feeding the idea of a building wave. Events in the Arab world over the last two years have raised a question around whether the Arab Spring could be labelled a 4th wave of democratisation as pressure on authoritarian leaders swept through the Middle East and North Africa. These revolutions certainly seemed to occur in a cluster as citizens across the region saw their neighbours challenging their governments and achieving change. Freedom House have called the Arab Spring “the most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism.” (Freedom House, 2012:1). However, the EIU is more pessimistic about these movements for democratic reform because “it has become apparent that democracy in the region remains a highly uncertain prospect” (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2013:1). 

Trends in African democracy

The Economist has written enthusiastically about democratic progress in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the last 20 years (Economist, 2011). If one takes the holding of elections as a sufficient measure of democracy, African democratisation since the end of the Cold War has been sweeping and impressive. Between 1960 and 1989 there were no elections in Africa. In contrast, Van Der Walle has said that 70 Presidential elections took place between 1989 and 2000 (Van Der Walle, 2002). On first sight these figures look really impressive and appear to add weight to Huntington’s ‘waves’ hypothesis. However, while there have been some democratic success stories in Africa, many countries that became ‘democratic’ would not be considered democracies by a liberal democratic standard. They might have gone through the process of holding elections, but that alone is insufficient when you take a broader definition of what it means to be democratic. For example, under Paul Kagame, Rwanda held elections in 2000, 2003 and 2010, and has been widely criticised by human rights groups for “worrying pattern[s] of intimidation, harassment and other abuses – ranging from killings and arrests to restrictive administrative measures – against opposition parties, journalists, members of civil society and other critics [of the government]” (Human Rights Watch, 2010:1). Rwanda, holds elections, but it is not a democracy as most people would understand one. Similarly, in neighbouring Uganda, critics have become increasingly vocal of President Yoweri Museveni’s rule after 26 years in office, citing “increasing threats to freedom of expression, assembly, and association” (Human Rights Watch, 2013:1). I would argue, therefore, that Huntington’s waves of democratisation are more a convenient academic narrative than a convincing representation of the reality of democracy in the world.

Democracy and development

The relationship between democracy and development has been the subject of significant debate over the years with commentators disagreeing on whether one is a necessary precursor for the other, or whether there are alternative forms of government that are more likely to drive development. Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” argued that the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union represented a victory for liberal democracy as the model of for achieving industrial development (Fukuyama 1992). Around the same time, some academics (see Leftwich, 2000), donor governments and multilateral institutions (UNDP) were developing the view that “democracy is not an outcome or consequence of development, but rather a necessary ingredient to bring about development” (ODI, 2007:5).

This debate is really interesting because I find the argument that democracy is a valuable way of holding government’s to account and creating an incentive for good performance quite convincing. Therefore, one might reasonably expect that development would flow from democracy. However, since the early 1990s, some authoritarian models of government have proven themselves equally capable, if not more so, than democracies of driving development. The country that has lifted the largest number of people out of poverty in recent years is – by far and away – China. The World Bank estimates that China’s high growth rate, averaging 10% per annum since 1978, has lifted over 600 million people out of poverty (World Bank, 2013). This fact quite clearly demonstrates that development is not dependent on democracy. China is not alone in driving development through authoritarian government; the East Asian Tigers of Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore all achieved rapid growth rates and dramatic poverty reduction through strong state-led schemes with only limited democracy (Stiglitz, 2002).

Taking this line of thought a bit further, is it possible, therefore, that democracy holds back developmental progress? Halperin et al. have argued that ‘the appeal of the authoritarian-led approach has … at least something to do with its expediency, in comparison to the messy and time-consuming procedures typical of democracy’ (in ODI, 2007:7). One might speculate (as Herring (1999) has) that India’s experience of development might have been simpler were it not operating within a system of parliamentary democracy. This assertion really chimed with me as I have often wondered the same during my time living in Delhi. So often the Indian government appears to take decisions based not on evidence or rational cost benefit analysis, but on political grounds. The current UPA coalition has really struggled during the current parliament to get any of its legislative agenda of bills passed, a problem it wouldn’t have were India not a democracy. Some commentators – like Leftwich (2000) – have argued that ‘authoritarian democracies’ where elections are held but human rights are tightly controlled, offer an attractive developmental model; for example Ethiopia under Meles Zanawi. However, of course we need to ask ourselves at what cost that authoritarian-driven ‘development’ is being achieved? 

Democracy and development in Africa

If there is no clear relationship between democracy and development in other parts of the world, what is the best model of government for Africa? Claud Ake, the Nigerian political scientist, saw democracy as being indispensablefor development in Africa, because he believed that there is a causal relationship between democracy and development (Ake in Fayemi, 2009). Nyong’o agreed and argued that “If governments are not accountable to the people they govern, then they are very likely to engage in socio-economic practices which are not responsive to people’s needs.” (Nyong’o in Fayemi, 2009). Some commentators, however, have argued that African society and culture does not lend itself naturally to the democratic model. Van De Walle, for example, has written about ethnicity posing a particular challenge because many African countries are divided along ethnic lines and politicians have a strong incentive to pander to their own ethnic group (Van Der Walle, 2003). I find myself feeling very skeptical of the validity of this argument. I think it’s wrong to make broad generalisations about many different countries within the continent of Africa and my initial reaction to this argument was that it sounds very patronising. However, other commentators have argued that democracy has enabled leaders to ‘capture’ the state machinery and use it in the interest of their own ethnic group, which seems quite convincing given the experience of Kenya under Kenyatta and his preference for the Kikuyu, Moi and the Kalenjin, “Biya of Cameroon and the Beti, Eyadema of Togo and the Kabye” (Ayittey, 2010:1). Fayemi has made the point that in some African countries “certain ethnic groups and political parties have found themselves perpetually in the minority, consistently staged outside the corridor of power….This violation of the right to be well represented…is one of the most persistent causes of political instability in Africa” (Fayemi, 2009:15). To me, this doesn’t mean that democracy and Africa are incompatible but rather that different models of democracy may work more effectively in different places; more decentralisation of democracy, for example, can help to ensure better representation for different ethnic groups. Ghana has recently demonstrated that democracy can work in Africa as it has received substantial praise for peacefully transitioning power following the death of President John Atta Mills in 2012 (BBC, 2012). It is clear that it is not correct to talk about Africa as a whole, because there is such diversity across the continent.



Ayittey, G. (2010) Why Western-style democracy is not suitable for Africa http://edition.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/08/20/ayittey.democracy.africa/index.html

BBC (2012) Ghana’s transition sets democratic example http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-18987589

Dahl, R. (1971) Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press

Democracy Ranking (2012) Democracy Index. http://www.democracyranking.org

Economist (2011) Democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s progress, even if it’s patchy. http://www.economist.com/node/21531010

Economist Intelligence Unit (2013) Democracy Index 2012 http://www.eiu.com/Handlers/WhitepaperHandler.ashx?fi=Democracy-Index-2012.pdf&mode=wp&campaignid=DemocracyIndex12

Fayemi, A.K. (2009) Towards an African Theory of Democracy Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya. Vol.1 No.1, June 2009, pp.101-126

Freedom House (2013:i) Freedom in the world 2013 http://www.freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-world

Freedom House (2013:ii) Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritatrians http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/special-reports/undermining-democracy-21st-century-authoritarians-0

Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and the Last Man

Herring, R. (1999) Embedded particularism: India’s failed developmental state. In M. Woo-Cumings (ed.) The Developmental State. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Human Rights Watch (2010) Rwanda: Silencing dissent ahead of elections http://www.hrw.org/news/2010/08/02/rwanda-attacks-freedom-expression-freedom-association-and-freedom-assembly-run-presi

Human Rights Watch (2013) World Report 2013; Uganda http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/uganda

Huntington, S. (1991) The Third Wave

Leftwich, A. (2000) Democracy and Development: Theory and Practice

ODI (2007) Analysing the relationship between democracy and development http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/1981.pdf

Schumpeter, J. (1942) Capitalism, socialism and democracy

Sen, A. (1999) Development as freedom

Stiglitz, J. (2002) Globalization and its discontents

Van De Walle, N. (2002) Elections without democracy: Africa’s range of regimes. Journal of Democracy 13(2): pp.66-80.

Van De Walle, N. (2003) Presidentialism and Clientelism in Africa’s Emerging Party Systems. The Journal of Modern African Studies. 41 (2) pp.297

World Bank (2013) China Overview http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/china/overview


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