Dividends of Democracy?

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By Prof. John Harbeson

As devoted as I am to the proposition that democracy is an indispensable value well worth pursuing as an end in itself, at the same time I am also increasingly convinced of a less well-established proposition that to be sustainable democratic practices must prove to be essential to realising other equally important objectives.  In any country, but especially in still relatively new states, democracy must over time, in both fact and appearance, lead to stronger personal and collective security, state stability, and discernible social and economic progress at the level of individuals and families as well as in macro-economic terms. How soon democracy must do so in order to sustain the support Afrobarometer surveys it retains among ordinary citizens is probably unknowable, but democracy still remains on the clock as it were.

I cannot prove empirically but I suspect that the last decade’s evidence that democratic momentum has stalled, especially in Africa but elsewhere as well, may in part result from a sense among leaders and citizens alike that nascent democracy in many, important respects has not yet met that implicit obligation. For many of the world’s established democracies, instituting democracy has probably been a precondition for unleashing economic progress, even as received theory postulates that economic development typically precedes democratization. Particularly in the light of heavy investment in many African countries by China and other rising economies, as well as growing counter-terrorism initiatives on the continent by other powers, however, it may be the case that democratisation has been sidelined by the direct pursuit of these objectives instead.  Some of my academic colleagues as well as friends in policy circles hold up the examples of Ethiopia and Rwanda as “developmental states,” that is, states that have shown impressive economic progress while suppressing democracy for all practical purposes and establishing state security by repression aided by externally supported counter-terrorism initiatives. I happen to question that hypothesis, at least in the case of Ethiopia, but perhaps I’m wrong.

I maintain that the heart of the problem is that, in the post-Cold War quarter-century, African countries have turned history and theory on their respective heads. Where developed countries plausibly have been shown to follow a sequence of state formation, followed by rapid economic development, only after which democracy has emerged, African countries have been obliged to confront the imperatives of state strengthening, democratisation, and economic development simultaneously, which would seem to imply that each process must both benefit from but also contribute to progress for the other two if they are all to succeed. Or have leaders, citizens, and external actors begun to conclude that state strengthening and economic development can be accomplished by forced marches, leaving democracy behind as non-essential or even as a drag on progress in the other areas?

The problematic and controversial election cycle that Kenya has just experienced, and may continue to experience, reminds us starkly that leaders and citizens alike must activate established, still fragile democratic institution to produce meaningful results, or things could get dangerously worse rather than better.

The problem, however, is that in countries throughout the world that are established democracies or, like Kenya, countries that have made significant but still incomplete democratic progress, there is still a valid and compelling imperative on the part of citizens and leaders alike that democracy result in socioeconomic improvement as well as stable state political environments. Contemporary conservative populism in North America, Europe and elsewhere has been dramatic and impatient testimony that democratic institutions are not doing their job.

Notably, somehow that same vein of populism has so far seemed less in evidence in sub-Saharan Africa. But two recent publications in Kenya have brought home the point that, flawed or not, democratic elections and democratic processes more generally have urgent work to do. One highlighted the critical importance of just and effective land policy in advancing the country’s agricultural and rural development while mitigating past injustices. Another reminds us that acceptance of Agenda 4 was critical and much less that fully implemented provision of the agreements that brought Kenya back from the brink after the near-meltdown of the 2007 elections. Agenda 4 mandated tackling poverty and inequality, unemployment, land reforms, and other important reforms.

In addition, the International Displacement Monitoring Centre’s most recent report confirms that while Kenya has made progress in reducing the numbers of internally displaced, in 2016, the last year for which data is now available, the country added 40,000 new IDPs to enlarge the total to 138,000. And the Fund for Peace, which monitors state fragility worldwide on an annual basis, treats IDPs and refugees as a major cause of state fragility. The Fund estimates Kenya to have the 13th most dangerous population of IDPs and refugees among Sub-Saharan African countries, and to be the 16th most fragile state within the continent.

The problematic and controversial election cycle that Kenya has just experienced, and may continue to experience, reminds us starkly that leaders and citizens alike must activate established, still fragile democratic institution to produce meaningful results, or things could get dangerously worse rather than better. ^

Writer is professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies

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