Settembre 15, 2017

Democratic promises: Is Democracy good for development in Africa?

President Zuma visits Angola. Photo: Flickr

Africa’s political landscape has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Following the collapse of many military and single-party dictatorships, during the 1990s the vast majority of sub-Saharan countries embarked on institutional reforms aimed at introducing elections and multipartyism.

These transitions were immediately welcomed as the beginning of a continent-wide democratic revolution.

Hopes ran high. Pundits hoped that the introduction of regularised procedures for leadership selection and replacement would have depersonalised political power, and eradicated the neo-patrimonial logic that has historically characterised African political elites’ approach to the management of the economy of their countries.

Ultimately, many observers expected democratisation in Africa to be a key driver for the continent’s socioeconomic development.

The nexus between political regime and socioeconomic performance is an object of disagreement in political science and economics. In general, besides those who are sceptical about the very existence of such a causal relationship, two contrasting views have been advanced concerning whether democracy is good or bad for development.

For decades, people had considered authoritarianism as a better antidote to bring postcolonial new states out of underdevelopment. One of the main arguments was that democracy makes rulers responsive to the demands of the poor for social services, thus hindering physical capital accumulation and growth. Participatory politics tends to generate inefficient governance, by overloading the state with sometimes contrasting demands, moreover. Finally, elections draw politicians’ attention to short-terms goals as opposed to longer-term investments, and are often associated with political instability, which reduces a country’s attractiveness for investors.

Economic miracles such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan since the 1960s, Chile and Brazil in the 1970s, or China, since the 1980s, seemed to confirm that a strong leadership committed to development was better than the premature introduction of democracy.

In Africa, however, authoritarianism has rarely taken such an “enlightened” and benevolent character. More often than not, post-colonial African dictators are remembered for their predatory attitudes.

Recently an opposite trend has emerged that sees democracy as compatible and even conducive to socioeconomic progress. In general, democratic competition generates incentives for a government to improve macroeconomic performance.

Democratic procedures imply that rules for leadership selection are more clear, transparent and certain. This increases political stability and creates a favourable environment for investments. Beyond economic growth, we are told that democratisation elicits governments’ attention towards the needs of society, which is especially relevant for Africa. A region that has historically ranked among the worst by most indicators of citizens’ living conditions.

For an incumbent government that aims to remain in office, universal suffrage and electoral competition make investments in social services for all an effective way to gain people support – especially when the vast majority of citizens are poor.

Moreover, periodic elections, where all individuals express their preferences, give citizens the power to sanction rulers’ poor policy performance. The threat of being voted out of office deters rent-seeking behaviours and incentivises higher spending on welfare programmes. Beyond the electoral arena, political participation and media freedom are crucial channels. There, the civil society can communicate with the government. This means raise policy issues, and develop public debates about policy implementation.

So, democracy could be good for development. However,  these arguments rest on the premise that the introduction of democratic institutions – first and foremost elections, universal suffrage, and competition – actually shapes, or democratises, politics in a country.

This is not necessarily the case, though.

The dramatic number of transitions from authoritarian rule in Mediterranean Europe, Latin America, part of Asia, and the communist world raised optimism.  As Samuel Huntington famously put it, a global “wave of democratization”. However, analysts now acknowledge that many of these regime changes did not end  up with democracy. In particular, a grey zone has expanded between full-fledged democracy and autocracy. It includes the so-called electoral authoritarian regimes, where nominally democratic procedures coexist with persistently authoritarian practices.

Africa makes no exception.

While moving similar initial steps, such as holding “founding” elections, Sub-Saharan democratic transitions have soon taken quite divergent trajectories of progress, stagnation, and regression.

In several countries, the institutionalisation of elections has proved to be an ephemeral achievement, and an outright reversal of the process of democratisation can be observed. In seventeen out of thirty-seven countries that have introduced limits to the number of consecutive terms that a President can serve, for instance, incumbent rulers have tried to violate, remove or amend these provisions.

In most cases, they have successfully maintained their grip on power. Burundi, Rwanda and Congo-Brazzaville are the most recent cases. Elsewhere, political development is idling, elections after elections, even in countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania, where ruling elites show some respect for the rules of the game, at least favouring succession at the executive between members of the same party. In a third group of countries democracy advances, not without difficulties.

For countries such as Ghana and Benin, democratic consolidation remains an ambitious goal, but elections are now routine, rival elites generally comply with the rules and accept turnover in power not only in theory, but also in practice. However, in other countries, which display levels of political freedoms above the continent’s average, including South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, the respective ruling parties systematically win elections.

Given the mixed record of democratisation in contemporary Africa, a question remains concerning how much democracy is needed to trigger the mechanisms that have been described. More specifically, is political change beneficial for development in Africa, even when it stops short of full democratisation? A first look at the data suggests a negative answer.

If we plot together the African countries’ level of human development for the 1990-2015 period by status of freedom, it is possible to notice a sort of threshold effect.

Notably, the Human Development Index, which is developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), ranges from 0 to 1, and summarises a country’s achievements in three key sectors, namely, the economy, education, and health. In turn, a country’s level of freedom is measured by Freedom House on a 7-1 scale (where 7 represents the minimum and 1 the maximum) based on the guarantees of political rights and civil liberties. Freedom House index is one of the most used measures for democracy.

A stark difference exists in terms of human development between African “Free” countries and the rest.

These findings seem to confirm that competition and participation elicit rulers’ attention towards the economy and the society only when elections, multipartyism, and universal suffrage are accompanied by an adequate protection of the freedom of expression and organisation, when the electoral process is fair, and when citizens’ personal autonomy is enforced.

Given the difficulties that many African countries are facing with the consolidation and the deepening of democracy, similar conclusions are rather discouraging for the continent’s prospects for development. In 2015, less than one fifth of sub-Saharan countries are Free – nine out of forty-nine states. However, if we observe the same data longitudinally, respectively as trends of freedom and human development, we notice a bifurcation.

Specifically, while democracy in Africa has stalled during the past decade, human development has kept a moderate but constant pace of growth. One explanation of these diverging trends rests on the improving developmental performance of a few non-democratic African countries. These includes several regimes that regularly hold multiparty universal suffrage elections despite severe violations of citizens’ political and civil rights, such as Cameroon, Tanzania, and Rwanda.

For instance, the latter has experienced a miraculous post-genocide recovery under the personalistic rule of Paul Kagame, who has recently won his third consecutive mandate with a sensational 98 percent of the vote, following a Constitutional reform that will allow him to run for other two terms. The leader’s achievements are widely recognised in health (e.g. the Community-Based Health Insurance system), education (e.g the Nine-Year Basic Education programme), gender equality, the technology industry, and in poverty eradication (e.g. the One Cow per Poor Family programme).

While they probably are exceptions, especially in a continent in which authoritarianism and personal rule have historically represented obstacles rather than drivers for development, these autocratic “success stories” should not be merely explained by ruler benevolence. Quite the contrary, they highlight that contemporary autocrats holding elections cannot rely on repression and manipulation alone to hold office.

To some extent, they need popular support, and pursue outcome-based legitimation. Promoting economic development and delivering social services could help autocrats win elections without resorting to massive fraud or violence, which is increasingly costly in terms of international reputation.

Hence, democracy could be a key vector of development in Africa, but hardly a necessary condition for it. While “good things” do seem to go together, “bad things” not necessarily do so. Even where political freedom remains a chimera, in particular, the presence of nominally democratic procedures such as multiparty elections could nonetheless incentivise rulers to promote growth and social welfare, and citizens could benefit from it.

Admittedly, this is bittersweet a conclusion. Whether electoral autocracies’ improving developmental performance will consolidate authoritarianism or whether development in these countries will instead create the social conditions for future democratisation is an open question.

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About Andrea Cassani

Andrea Cassani

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