Dysfunctional governance is central to why some countries remain poor. Since 1991 Europe has attempted to improve governance by promoting democratisation. Yet the distinction between democratic and autocratic regimes does not relate closely to that between good and bad governance. Whereas some autocratic regimes are plundering tyrannies, others are delivering prosperity. Similarly, while some democratic regimes are disciplined by accountability, others are mired in populism and patronage. Democracies only work well under certain conditions. A good autocracy may be better able to put these foundations in place than a dysfunctional democracy. The path to a well-functioning democracy may not start from dysfunctional democracy, but from benign autocracy.
Europe expected elections to deliver legitimacy to government. Yet this cannot happen in societies that are deeply divided by sub-national identities: in Iraq, the Sunni were not willing to accept rule by the majority Shi’a no matter what the vote. Without a sense of common identity, elections degenerate into an ethnic poll. Take Kenya’s ethnically divided society. In the elections of 2008 over 40 percent of the Luo judged that the performance of the economy had improved under President Kibaki. Yet only one-in-twenty of the Luo with this favourable assessment actually voted for him: Kibaki was a Kikuyu. In such conditions the favours that a leader does for other groups are unappreciated, so he has little choice but to favour his own: identity politics breeds patronage systems. While dysfunctional democracies reinforce ethnic identities, some benign autocrats have had the vision to forge a common identity. In Tanzania, President Nyerere overcame tribal identifies through education, charisma and symbolism. In Indonesia, another autocrat, Sukarno, used similar techniques to forge islands into a nation.
Europe expected newly democratised governments to conduct elections honestly. Instead, incumbents rapidly learnt to win elections by means of illicit tactics. Ballot fraud, bribery, intimidation, and the exclusion of strong opponents have become the norm. Without prior checks and balances the chances of a clean election are negligible, but whereas elections can be put together almost overnight, effective institutions take years to develop.
Europe expected elections to deliver social order and good economic policies. Yet in low-income societies democracy is associated with higher levels of political violence. Elections can only discipline governments into better economic policies if they are cleanly conducted. Further, democracies that inherit dysfunctional economic policies often get stuck with them. Vested interests know that if they can inflict enough damage, the government will back off from change. In contrast, an autocrat can credibly assert that resistance would be futile. Europe expected elections to deliver social order.
Democracy indeed has its credentials. As per capita income rises above $2,700, democracy gains the edge over autocracy as a means of achieving social peace. Once checks are effective, democracy also disciplines governments into better economic policies. The West’s goals for developing countries have been right. But the revolutionary switch from autocracy to democracy in Eastern Europe was not an appropriate model for many low-income countries. Eastern Europe was already a middle-income region, it had a previous tradition of democracy, and it had the beacon of the European Union to anchor aspirations. In many smaller low-income societies a phase of benign autocracy may be useful to pave the way for democracy.
Autocrats set their own objectives. Chinese leaders want China to be a great power. Pol Pot wanted to turn Cambodia into rural primitive communism. The former goal is shrinking poverty, the latter generated mass starvation. Currently, Europe’s media and development agencies refuse to discriminate: they condemn autocrats in low-income countries regardless of their policies. The benign autocrats should not be condemned and pressured into a rushed democracy. However much we might wish it to be different, democracy is not an essential precondition for development.
While Eastern Europe is a false guide, history does have examples of evolutionary democracy. South Korea and Chile each went through a prolonged phase of authoritarian rule that, while an affront to human rights, was able to implement fundamental economic reforms that delivered rapid growth. In each society, rising prosperity increased the pressure for the constitutional changes and institution-building that enabled a transition to genuine democracy. The subsequent democratic regimes have restored human rights, but have maintained the economic policies that delivered prosperity. We should at least entertain the possibility that although regimes such as Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia fall short by the standards of democracy, they are following the path taken by Korea and Chile.
This article originally appeared in Social Europe Journal.