Diagnosing democracy deficits: convergence around power, politics and incentives

A wide range of analysts and democracy practitioners in different academic and professional spheres are working to diagnose the problems and weaknesses of contemporary democracies and to propose solutions to address them.  Three broad approaches are of particular relevance from a development and human rights perspective.

1)  Political economy approaches

Political economy approaches to governance and democracy focus on economic structures and power relations between different sections of society.  Of particular relevance to is the concept of “political settlement”, described by  Whaites (2008) as “the forging of a common understanding, usually among elites, that their interests or beliefs are served by a particular way of organising political power.”  Settlements often constitute bargains between groups contesting for power, or agreements about how to share power.  Political settlements have often been conceived of as the bargain struck between warring factions during peace agreements, or the power sharing arrangement between different groups that provides the basis of the state.  However, analysts have more recently begun to think of settlements as processes of shifting power relationships and incentive structures, rather than static agreements rooted in a specific moment and context.  Settlements can therefore change over time, either through slow evolution and incremental shifts, or through disruptive events, for example when incumbent regimes are overthrown by political coup or electoral defeat.

As democracy is in effect a system for organising and administering political power, an understanding of the political settlements that underlie democratic systems in different countries is key for understanding how these systems function.  A number of scholars working in this field have argued that efforts to build democracy over the past twenty years have not paid enough attention to the local political settlement.  Institutions have therefore been built on top of, rather than in line with, power dynamics and incentive structures.  At best, such institutions are ineffective and do not alter underlying neopatrimonial logics that govern social, political and economic relations.  At worst, they exacerbate these logics, with seemingly democratic processes “helping to burnish the specious reformist credentials of entrenched strongmen” (Carothers, 2009:10-11).

Research into local governance systems in a number of African countries confirms these fears.  For example, a study conducted by the Africa Power and Politics Programme found that a number of people in rural areas of Uganda believe that democratic processes are equated with freedom from civic obligation and impunity from sanction.  Ineffective local political leaders shelter under an umbrella of legitimacy leant to them by flawed electoral processes.  Politicians that want to effect change are unwilling to implement policies that may be unpopular with certain sections of the population for fear of losing votes (Booth, 2010).  In Malawi, the history of political development in the country has left local public goods under party political rather than state control.  When the previously dominant party suffered electoral defeat, the local party in Blantyre was able to withdraw funds from the Water Board, forcing it to cut off the water supply to local residents (ibid).  In such scenarios, it is not surprising that local citizens associate democracy with poor management of local resources rather than with effective governance.

A number of political economists go so far as to argue that democracy is not compatible with economic development.  Development requires the redistribution of resources away from economically unproductive elite groups in society.  However, democracy provides such groups with the tools to reject change (Khan, 2002).  Tactics may include political or resource mobilisation to harm reformists or elected leaders, competing directly for office, and influencing cash-strapped politicians through donations (Leftwich, 2002).  Democracy can also have the effect of concentrating energy and resources on political infighting and elite squabbles over resources, rather than on policy development and implementation.However, rather than rejecting democracy as a political system, many researchers and analysts working in this field are calling for better appreciation of the impact that incentive structures, informal institutions and power relationships are having on democratic processes and development.  Whilst democratic states are not automatically effective states, this does not automatically rule out the possibility of democratic states that are (Fritz and Menocal, 2007).  The challenge is to work with the grain of incentive structures and existing institutions and realities, exploiting the areas in which these overlap with progressive agendas whilst at the same time being realistic about what development and democracy interventions can hope to achieve.

2) Strengthening the formal institutions of liberal democracy

Institutional approaches to democratic development focus on formal institutions as drivers of change.  Accordingly, the rise of illiberal and authoritarian democracies is mainly attributed to weaknesses in democratic institutions, systems and processes.  It follows that the quality of democracy can be improved through strengthening the institutions upon which it rests.  Scholars and practitioners working in this field have tended to look at the structure of institutions and the rules that determine how they function.  These include constitutional arrangements, the design of electoral systems and the rules that govern political competition and legislative politics.  For example, the “grand coalitions” or power sharing agreements advocated by Arend Lijphart might help to ensure that all groups in society are represented within the governing apparatus.  Electoral quotas and list-based proportional representation systems can also help to ensure broad representation in government.  Work in this field encompasses analysis and support of the demand side of democracy as well as the supply side, for example through encouraging constitutional and legislative arrangements that support and protect civil society.  It also addresses horizontal accountability institutions, including human rights institutions, legislatures and judiciaries.

Institutional approaches to diagnosing and addressing democracy deficits have received criticism for being too technical in their approach, failing to appreciate or address the impact that informal institutions and incentive structures have on political behaviour.  Donors and democracy practitioners working in this field are responding to this criticism in three main ways.  Firstly, increasing attention is being paid to formal institutions that have tended to be neglected in development work, but which in reality have significant impact on political dynamics and prospects for building democratic and effective states.  The most significant of these are political parties.  Until recently, donors have been reluctant to engage with political parties for fear of being accused of political partisanship.  Party support work has largely been conducted through sister party organisations in mature democracies which offer capacity building assistance to their political counterparts in younger democracies.  However, there are indications that donors are recognising the importance of engaging with parties and party systems as a direct and integrated component of democracy and governance work.  In doing so, they are attempting both to mitigate the role that parties often play as political spoilers to peace and development, and to harness their political power for developmental ends.  Work in this area includes capacity building with individual parties, fostering inter-party dialogue, and strengthening party systems through reform of their rules and regulations.

The second, related response to accusations of overly technical approaches to institutional strengthening has been an attempt to inject appreciation of politics into work with formal institutions.  Drawing on insights from the field of new institutional economics, this work is focusing on the incentive structures that influence the behaviour of individuals working within institutions, which in turn impacts on the effectiveness of the institution as a whole.  This is a relatively new line of work within the academic and policy communities.  Examples of research and thinking include Power’s (2010) analysis of the drivers of change within legislatures and the Africa Power and Politics Programme’s work stream on the contradictory pressures that affect the behaviour of members of parliament (Lindberg and Gyimah-Boadi, 2009).  There is now rough consensus within the donor community that democracy and governance programming work has to address politics, incentives and power structures.  However, most donors and practitioners seem to be struggling to apply these lessons in practice, with the result that work with democratic institutions is still overwhelmingly technical in its approach (Coleman and Power, 2010).

The third notable trend within research and programming related to institutional strengthening is the increasing attention that is being paid to so-called “traditional” institutions such as traditional local justice systems and leadership structures.  The role that these institutions play in influencing the behaviour of citizens and the legitimacy and effectiveness of formal institutions has been highlighted by a number of analysts and researchers (see for example Cammack, 2009; IDS, 2010).  The advice from this literature to the donor and democracy practitioner communities is to make sure that they understand the roles that these institutions play in local communities, and how they interact with and affect the legitimacy of formal institutions.  Donors are also encouraged to work with existing institutional structures wherever possible, coordinating with them and building upon them rather than attempting to supplant them with new institutions.  Thinking in this area is more advanced in relation to working with traditional justice systems than it is for working with traditional authorities in promoting good governance and democracy.

3) Socio-cultural and participatory approaches

Socio-cultural approaches to democracy tend to emphasise the demand side of the democratic equation, focusing on the democratic values of citizens and their perceptions of the legitimacy of democratic leaders and institutions.  According to this perspective, the roots of failure in new democracies lie in the absence of common understandings within and between communities and stakeholders about what democratic and legitimate leadership looks like, how it should function and what it should deliver.  Based on Eckstein’s theories of political legitimacy, Norris (2011) argues that democratic regimes are more likely to be sustainable if people’s expectations of them are in line with how they actually function in practice.  If democratic systems are perceived as legitimate and fair, people and politicians are more likely accept the election of leaders that they don’t like, and democratic values and practices are entrenched within society.

An important strand of thinking and programming that has emerged from this area of work focuses on participatory forms of democracy.  Often presented in contrast with representative liberal democracy, academics and practitioners working in this field tend to emphasise the importance of direct citizen engagement in political processes.  This might be through the formation of associations which engage with politics, participation in social movements, or the development of new formal spaces for direct participation in politics.  Such participatory mechanisms are believed to enhance people’s control over their lives, allowing them to demand more accountable governance from leaders and shape, or directly participate in, policy making and management of public resources.  Such processes can help to build notions of citizenship, inclusion and social cohesion, in turn helping to foster popular legitimacy of governance systems, peace and stability.  Work in this area has often been labelled as “deepening democracy”:  “the political project of developing and sustaining more substantive and empowered citizen participation in the political process than what is normally found in liberal representative democracy alone” (Gaventa, 2005:1).

As is the case for institutional approaches, socio-cultural and participatory approaches to democracy building have been criticised for failing to pay adequate attention to politics and power structures.  Participatory processes and spaces are usually underlain by similar patterns of inclusion and exclusion as formal democratic institutions.  Associations, movements and participatory spaces are prone to capture by elite and political factions, and it is not always clear that individual and organisational claims to represent or speak for certain constituents are valid.  Despite this criticism, there is a growing body of case study evidence that suggests that participatory forms of democracy do have positive effects.  Gaventa and Barrett (2010) analysed the findings of over 100 studies of citizen engagement and participation in 20 countries, finding that they had positive impacts in 75% of cases.  These included a stronger sense of citizenship, enhanced participation, more accountable states and more cohesive societies.  Scholars working in this field acknowledge the limitations of participatory democracy, and increasing attention is being paid by practitioners to the ways in which political and power inequalities affect the outcomes of participatory projects.  Gaventa and Barrett stress the importance of moving on from asking whether participation can have positive impacts, to analysis of the conditions and factors that influence the impact and outcome that participatory institutions and processes have.  This is where questions of the underlying political settlement and power relations come into play.

An emerging common theme: politics, power and incentives

The importance of taking politics, power and incentives into consideration when diagnosing the causes of democratic deficits and defining possible remedies is emerging as a common strand of thinking across the three main approaches to democratic development.  There also appears to be growing consensus around the importance of bringing the three main approaches together, analysing the ways in which they interact and impact on each other rather than prioritising one approach over the other.  In short, there appears to be increasing recognition of the importance of looking at democracy and politics across their many different axes and through a range of theoretical lenses.  The emphasis is being placed on understanding what is actually happening in reality, rather than narrowly focusing on what should be happening in theory.  Whether this will lead to more flexible, context specific support and innovations in democracy building has yet to be seen.

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