Is democracy getting in the way of development?

Is democracy getting in the way of development?


The Africa Report, in association with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, is organising the inaugural session of The Africa Report Debates in Accra on 20 November to ask the question: Is democracy getting in the way of development?

When China’s President Xi Jinping arrives in South Africa for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation on 4-5 December, he will face a barrage of questions, private and public, about the health of his country’s economic relations with Africa’s 54 states.

China, despite its slowdown and rebalancing, is still Africa’s second-largest trading partner after Europe, with trade worth more than $220bn in 2014.

Sometimes democracy – our politicians and civil society and their arguments – gets in the way development

Many of the questions will be about the numbers and timeframes: whether, or perhaps when, will China’s imports of African resources return to the glory days of the commodity supercycle? How will China’s investments in African infrastructure be affected by Beijing’s policy shifts? Will China open more factories in Africa?

There will also be some quieter, more strategic questions about tackling poverty and underdevelopment. In that area, China remains the world leader historically, with more than 400 million of its people climbing out of poverty in the past three decades. Its success – along with that of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – has sparked a vibrant debate on development models in Africa.

Getting the development strategy right – the balance between political pluralism and building a developmental state – will affect the lives of hundreds of millions. At once it is the biggest responsibility for governments: to ensure maximum social provision in terms of education and health along with growth and economic well-being and the freedom to pursue these.

There is also a time imperative: more than 350 million young Africans are due to join the labour market over the next three decades, with Africa’s population due to hit two billion by 2050.

As Africa becomes the fastest-urbanising continent, it could take advantage, like China, of the demographic dividend offered by this workforce and market. Failure could prove catastrophic, within and well beyond Africa’s shores.

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, highlighted the human stakes when he went to Ghana on 16 October to launch ‘Poverty in a Rising Africa’, a new report based on 25 years of household surveys. “Africa’s economy is on the rise, but to avoid bypassing vulnerable people – whether in the rural areas or in fragile states – we must improve how we measure human progress,” he explained.

Kim’s choice of Ghana drew attention to that country’s record of combining political pluralism and economic progress. Over the past three decades, Ghana has cut poverty by more than half, from 53% in 1991 to 21% in 2012, according to the World Bank.

But, more widely, Africa’s last decade of strong growth failed to cut poverty significantly, the report says. It estimates that 388 million people were living in ex- treme poverty in Africa in 2012, compared to 284 million in 1990.

However, as a percentage of the population the number had fallen – to 43% compared to 56% in 1990. What, then, is the best form of attack on this poverty? In 1957, South Korea had a lower per capita gross domestic product than Ghana.

Today, it is the thirteenth-largest economy in the world, partly because President Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian regime focused remorselessly on export-oriented industrialisation, which produced what became known as the ‘Miracle on the Han River.’

The three pillars of Park’s strategy – land redistribution, export-oriented manufacturing and a closely controlled financial sector – were anathema to would-be advisers from the World Bank and the country’s business elite, who tried to co-opt him.

Park’s methods appalled democracy’s promoters in the region: he seized power in a military coup in 1961, won election as a civilian president and changed the constitution’s term limits, before being assassinated by the head of his intelligence services in 1979.

But the South Korean model is widely admired across Africa. It was a senior Kenyan civil servant who put the point to The Africa Report a year ago: “Sometimes democracy – our politicians and civil society and their arguments – gets in the way development.” He was exasperated by local campaigns against the rebuilding of the Nairobi-Mombasa railway.

Perhaps three governments in Africa – Ethiopia, Morocco and Rwanda – are producing substantial economic results with authoritarian political systems.

An adviser to Ethiopia’s late Premier Meles Zenawi said that “state consolidation would have to take priority over democratisation. We need a state that has the capacity to deliver the basic social goods before we can talk about competitive partisan politics.”

South Africa’s former president Thabo Mbeki warns against being too reductive on the issue: “We have to admit there are some authoritarian systems that are strengthening economies, and there are pluralist systems that do the same. It is a matter of degree, finding a balance.”

A fellow South African, Thuli Madonsela, the public protector who has led the investigation into the state financing of President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead, says it is also a matter of history: “People have looked at why China works, why Singapore works. You always have to look back at traditions. There is no way in South Africa that that sort of option would work.”

She explains: “South Africa is a society that was based on defiance […], that was built on challenging authoritarianism. So if the new government had become authoritarian, it would have been chaos from day one.”

But even in economically successful states in Asia, Madonsela argues, political pressures will build up: “In countries like China, Singapore and Malaysia, they have authoritarian regimes, but those systems are not eternal. They will blow one day. We have seen cracks already.”

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