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Democracy in Combating Poverty

Democracy and Development in Combating Poverty


The correlation between democracy and development in combating poverty stems from the European debate that has taken place since the early part of the last century. The significance of this debate has since been further amplified as a consequence of decolonization and the ability of international economic institutions such as International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to impose conditions on providing international aid to developing countries (Barsh 1992). The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the fact that combating poverty does not require the concurrent application of democracy and development. It follows on from the introductory work done by my group member Christopher Kaindi and leads onto the case studies done by Phonesavanh Sethanaphaixanh. It will show that the premature application of democracy in many of these developing countries leads to further problems and as such do not address poverty alleviation. It will do so by first taking a brief look at the argument in favor of democracy. It will then define the concepts of democracy and development in regards to combating poverty. Following that the paper will then illustrate the issues related to the premature implementation of democracy. Finally the paper will look at the implications of such a conflict on the provision of international aid to developing countries.

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Democracy and Development Defined

Democracy and development alike are terms that have been conceptualized in various and often contradicting ways. As such, for the purpose of this paper, both these terms have been defined in their minimalist form.

Democracy refers to a form of government that allows the citizens of a country to play a vital role in the creation and implementation of the country’s policies and laws through a system of representation (Shihata 1997). Typical features of a democratic government include the separation of State and Church, the separation of the legislative, judicial and executive powers, the protection of fundamental human rights, and due process of law (Shihata 1997).

Development refers to the transformation of a society that features human progress in all its aspects. Aside from social and cultural growth development hopes to improve the nations’ economic growth, that is, to raise the per capita income of nations (Shihata 1997).

Therefore, it would appear, from the above definitions that development, with its emphasis on economic growth, is an essential process necessary for the alleviation of poverty. As such, in an attempt to illustrate the non correlation between development and democracy in combating poverty the remainder of this paper will highlight some of the key areas in which the two have a conflict of interest.

Why Have Democracy?

Proponents argue that democracy helps the poor in three ways: democracies empower poor people through elections, and hence force governments to attend to their needs; democracies facilitate the free flow of information, and hence give governments better information about the condition of the poor; and democratic governments provide their citizens with more public goods.

Why Not Have Democracy

The type of political regime itself has no impact on economic development. It is in fact the policies undertaken by the governments of these developing countries that enable them to fight poverty. As such arguments that suggest authoritarian governments in countries such as Cuba, Burma and North Korea have lead to higher number of people in poverty is seriously flawed. It’s their governments’ decision to implement import-substitution strategies and less involvement in global trade that has lead to them struggling with poverty eradication. Export-orientated strategies have been far more effective in promoting sustained economic growth. This is evident in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan where democracy came at a later stage of development.

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Furthermore, it is unrealistic to assume that democratic institutions can be set up easily, almost anywhere, at any time. Effective democracy isn’t just about having elections; it needs a relatively developed infrastructure that includes not only economic resources but also widespread participatory habits and an emphasis on autonomy. The Bush administration ignored this reality when it attempted to implant democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq which as a result have left both these countries in a state of chaos.

In a developing country the people’s main focus is survival, which includes basic economic and physical security such as food and shelter. During the process of development as these necessities are met there is a change in values which shifts from being one that is to meet the basic needs of survival to complex needs of self expression and freedom of speech, and participation in political decision making. This very shift in values creates the preconditions required for a healthy democratic regime to operate in a country.

Among the countries that democratized between in 1970 and 1990, democracy has survived in every country that made the transition when it was at the economic level of Argentina today or higher, among the countries that made the transition at an earlier stage of development, democracy had an average life expectancy of only eight years.

The structure of democracy, with its institutions of voting rights, an independent judiciary that often requires judicial review and leads to judicial restraint on legislative and executive power, and a free press, sets it apart from authoritarian rule. The restraint of arbitrary power can be a powerful source of development; but a well-functioning democracy can also undermine development. The structure of democratic participation relies on the creation and proliferation of interest groups that lobby for their views to be heard and their concerns to prevail. But a lobbying-infested democracy can lead to widespread waste and inefficiency through the effects of rent-seeking and “unproductive profit-seeking” activities. There is also a danger of what Jonathan Rauch has called demosclerosis: the paralysis of gridlock afflicting a lobbying-infested democracy. The welfare gains that lobbies produce in allowing citizen participation in governance and in fostering balanced policymaking can be outweighed by their costs from gridlock and unproductive profit-seeking. That democracies are subject to this tradeoff is indisputable.


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