Developing Democracy: Democratizers' Surprisingly Bright Development Record

By Siegle, Joseph | Harvard International Review, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Developing Democracy: Democratizers' Surprisingly Bright Development Record


Siegle, Joseph, Harvard International Review


The past 25 years have seen an astonishing advance in the number of democracies around the world. Some 87 previously nondemocratic countries have made discernible advances towards democracy during this time. Of these democratizers, 70 have per capita incomes below US$4,000, making this a largely developing country phenomenon. Today, two-thirds of all countries live under some form of self-governance--a reversal from just 15 years ago.

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Despite this tectonic shift in global governance patterns, the sentiment that a poor country must first develop economically before it can democratize persists. The stellar growth of autocratic Singapore, China, and Vietnam as well as the experiences of South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile are trotted out as justification for this seemingly hard but true reality. Low income countries that do start down a democratic path are bound to fail or at least take a sharp economic hit in the process, according to this view. Indeed, authoritarian governments throughout the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere are quick to cite this concern when deflecting growing pressure to democratize.

A closer look at the development track record tells a different story, however. Most of the 87 contemporary democratizers have realized economic growth as fast as, if not faster than, the norm for their respective regions over the past five years. That is, democratizers such as Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Baltic states, Mexico, Senegal, and Mozambique are typically growing more rapidly than countries with autocratic governments such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Togo, and Gabon. The pattern holds up for the entire 25-year period of the contemporary democratization era. This is so despite the fact that a full quarter of (typically underperforming) autocratic governments do not publicly report their economic data and therefore are not even factored into these comparisons.

The differences are even more striking when we consider indicators of well-being such as life expectancy, illiteracy, and access to clean drinking water. Low-income democratizers enjoy demonstrably better living standards than autocracies. Consider infant mortality rates, an indicator many development experts consider the best all around measure of social welfare progress. Autocratic countries with per capita incomes below US$2,000 averaged 79 infant deaths per 1,000 live births during the 1990s. Democratizers in the same income category and time period typically experienced 62 infant deaths. Given that many of these countries still rely on their agricultural sectors for the bulk of their employment and income, democratizers' track record of posting agricultural yields that are on average 25 percent superior to those of developing country autocracies is similarly noteworthy.

Simply put, democratic governance is good for development. This is not to say that there are not exceptions; clearly, there are. However, the pattern of superior developmental performance among countries that are on a democratic path is robust. The traditional view that political liberalization inevitably precipitates populist economic policies and economic contraction has not been demonstrated in practice when compared to autocratic countries in the same regions or income groups.

In many ways, this is intuitive--what is government but a mechanism by which a society orders its priorities? The more representative, transparent, and accountable this process, the more balanced the outcomes will be compared to a system that is narrowly based and lacking incentives for responsiveness to citizen interests.

Why Do Some Democratizers Do So Much Better?

Given that democratizers more than hold their own when it comes to development, the more interesting question is why some democratizers do so much better than others in their development efforts? That is, if democracy is a plus for development, why aren't all democratizers thriving? …

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