Developing democracies can thrive — messily

participation formsIn a recent blog post, I introduced some data on patterns of governance change in developing democracies. The data confirm a central theme of Working with the Grain – that most developing democracies are messy, and are likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. For the overwhelming majority of developing democracies, transformational fantasies are just that – fantasies. In these messy settings,  our conventional  frameworks  of good governance and technocratic policymaking are of little use. Those of us who are committed to democratic pathways need new understandings of the way forward.

This post provides the empirical detail which I promised in the earlier post – and highlights also what the reality of democratic ‘messiness’ implies for action.  As I laid out in the earlier post – and as the attached file on MAJOR GOVERNANCE IMPROVERS 1998 to 2013   details, —  65 countries are on a democratic pathway, and  have populations in excess of 1 million, and per capita incomes which (as of 2000)  were below $10,000.  The group divides more-or-less evenly between 35  countries for which the recent period has been one of continuing (albeit often uneven) economic progress, and 30  countries that have experienced limited, if any, gains on either the institutional or economic front.  The 35 countries in turn divide into three predominant patterns.

First is a group of 13 accession (and candidate accession) countries to the European Union. This group underscores that,  for all of its current difficulties,  the EU has been a powerful positive force for the development of institutions of democracy.  Twelve countries have enjoyed both substantial economic growth and institutional improvement. (Hungary, where growth has been slower, and there has been some institutional decline, is the exception.) Indeed,  six of the twelve  (Albania, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, and Serbia) achieved truly far-reaching institutional gains  —  though, for some of these, from a weak starting point, and  with a long road still to be travelled. But for now, with no equivalent regional candidate  anywhere on the horizon, the EU accession experience remains unique, with limited relevance for other countries.

This brings us to the second pattern – rapidly-growing democracies outside the EU zone which,  in the fifteen years from 1998 to 2013, enjoyed continuing transformational gains in governance. How many countries fit into this category?  Only two – and this by a generous count!!!!  One of these is Georgia – where strong leadership between 2004 and 2013 by elected president Mikheil Saakashvili indeed resulted in extraordinarily rapid gains in measured institutional quality  (although it must be noted that, by the tail-end, of his presidency, Saakashvili confronted increasing accusations of abuse of presidential power). The other is Liberia, where institutions remain very, very weak – but where  Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s leadership since 2005 has reversed an earlier institutional collapse, with the gains evident in the speed with which (after an initially shaky start) the country has been able to bring its ebola epidemic under control.

In sum, the EU experience aside, a review of the comparative record finds few if any countries which offer inspiration (let alone practical lessons) for complex democratic societies seeking transformational governance change. In the aftermath of an initial democratizing moment, continuing rapid institutional improvements of the kind championed by advocates of bold leadership are exceedingly rare.

So, finally, we come to the third, most prevalent group –  20 democratic countries where the quality of institutions  continues to fall far short of transformational dreams, but where economic growth has been rapid:

  • Some countries in this group have managed some continuing incremental gains in institutional quality. Indonesia is a leading example. As per the data, other possible moderate governance improvers (from very different baselines) are Armenia, Sierra Leone, Turkey and Zambia. (Ukraine, prior to its recent travails, was also on the list.)
  • Other countries (Ghana, for example; or, at higher levels of per capita income, Panama and Uruguay) have seen little change in institutional quality over fifteen years.
  • In yet others (e.g. Bangladesh, Mongolia, Mozambique and Peru) there has been some institutional retrogression.

If one looks only at the quality of institutions few, if any, of the 20 would seem to be models of what one hoped might come in the wake of democracy. But perhaps a narrow pre-occupation with institutional quality is misplaced. What all of the countries in the group share is a sense of dynamism, of things on the move – of possibility — that can come from sustained, broad-based economic growth.

Encouragingly, as Princeton professor Dani Rodrik has laid out in detail for economic policy – and as I detail in Working with the Grain vis-a-vis governance improvement– incremental initiatives can keep forward momentum going, on both the economic and institutional fronts. We don’t need far-reaching transformational boldness of a kind which both recent historical experience and in-depth knowledge of specific country settings tells us simply is not on the cards. As long as momentum can be sustained, the private sector, civil society and middle-class actors all are likely to strengthen – and become increasingly well-positioned to push for better public services, a stronger rule of law, and greater personal freedom.

So perhaps, going forward in what promises to be another challenging year, this could be the resolution of those of us committed to democratic development: that we foreswear the seductive utopianism of transformational change, and commit instead to working in the development and governance trenches — taking satisfaction from modest gains in institutional quality; embracing inclusive economic growth which spreads benefits widely; and working more broadly to sustain forward movement (however partial it might seem). The resulting gains will surely feel uncomfortably partial – and inevitable shortfalls in relation to our imaginary visions of perfection will surely continue to pain us.

But if forward momentum can continue, then  cumulative causation increasingly can make its power felt. Decade-by-decade things will be seen to be getting better. And if  progress can be sustained for, say, a half century —  the length of time that elapsed from the end of the American Civil War in 1865 to the country’s late Progressive Era of the early twentieth century — then perhaps  the world can indeed turn out to have been transformed.

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