Over the past century, democracy has emerged at the international level as the most widely accepted system for managing politics and allocating power over the state. This is as true for the international development community as for other spheres of international relations, with broad consensus emerging amongst many donors that democracy is an integral component of development. Democracy is supported for its intrinsic value as a fundamental human right, and also for the instrumental benefits that it is believed to bring. These include: improved governance of development aid resources by recipient governments; the emergence of governments that are more accountable and responsive to the needs of poor and marginalised communities; development programmes that are better targeted towards poverty reduction; and improved institutional environments for business and economic development.
However, in recent years, concern has been rising within the academic, donor and practitioner communities that democracy is failing to deliver on either its supposed intrinsic or instrumental benefits. Aggregate indices of democracy suggest that civil liberties and political freedoms are in decline at the global level. Rather than seeing the emergence of inclusive, responsive and capable democratic states, scholars have bemoaned the rise of so-called “partial”, “illiberal”, and “low-intensity” democracies. In such states, democracy exists as a “thin veneer of Western concepts”; a set of formal institutions which have failed to provoke meaningful democratic empowerment or accountability.
In many nominally democratic developing countries, power remains concentrated in the hands of political elite who manipulate democratic institutions to shore up their power and legitimacy. State resources are allocated and used to maintain political loyalty and support, supplanting notions of democratic accountability and representation. Such countries are commonly referred to as “hybrid states”, caught between traditional governance by patronage and the modern ideal of governance by liberal political and economic institutions. Shifting focus from the broader concept of governance to the narrower subset of political governance, these states might be termed “hybrid democracies”. Formal institutions of liberal representative democracy are mixing with traditional or pre-existing political institutions, processes and structures to create new, hybrid forms of political participation and representation. These follow their own logics and have their own outcomes, often quite different to those predicted by models of liberal representative democracy.
There are some instances in which new, home-grown modalities of politics and decision making are helping to advance the political rights of poor and marginalised people, helping to build more inclusive political settlements and have a voice in decision making. But in too many cases, seemingly democratic institutions are actually undermining prospects for peace, poverty reduction and human development, rather than advancing them. They are serving to amplify rather than reduce incentives for zero-sum and personality politics, political instability and violence, corruption and poor governance of public resources.
This is not to say that we should abandon democracy, or stop working to strengthen democratic systems and processes in younger and older democracies alike. Democracy is a fundamental right and value, the absence of which would do more harm than good for human rights and development at the global level. However, there is a need for the international development community to take a step back and reassess its motivations, goals and approaches in the governance and democracy arenas. In particular, there is a need to acknowledge the tensions that exist between the form that so-called democratic politics is taking in countries across the world, and other development goals such as poverty reduction, political stability and effective policy making. We need to assess what is feasible and realistic to expect from young democracies in fragile states. To explore the feasibility of developing new democratic institutions, processes and cultures that are better able to meet the needs of the poorest sections of society. And to find ways of providing the space that is needed for innovation to build home-grown and locally owned political systems, whilst also remaining true to our values and ideals.
I’ve set up this blog to explore these ideas. Please do get in touch if you are working on related issues, interested in research collaboration, or if you have thoughts and opinions to share.