Has liberal democracy lifted people out of poverty? To a casual observer, the answer is
unequivocally yes. One part of the world – the industrialised democratic northern half – is both richer, and healthier than the (historically undemocratic) South or East. Coincidence?
The West’s success may be a function of north Europe’s temperate climate, cultural mores shaped on the windswept British isles and European plains, the competition spurred by centuries of warfare,
the invention of modern banking, the head-start provided by inventors, colonial conquests and possibly even the ideas and ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Judeo-Christian faith.
But many other regions had similar in-puts. Perhaps the West was just blessed by better leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs. Or it colonised as opposed to being colonised. What is sure is that
other regions did not have a liberalising movement, which eventually created modern-day liberal democracy.
Yet the development community – from NGOs to DfiD officials – seem to think that democracy and development are completely unrelated. They are almost allergic to the idea of democracy-promotion for
First, they claim not to see a correlation between development and democracy, pointing to countries like China but also Rwanda that have alleviated poverty en masse. Second, they seem to believe
that a focus on democracy will take away from what in their eyes is a higher objective, namely poverty-alleviation.
Third, they seem to associate democracy-promotion with a neo-conservative agenda – and thus tainted by association with George Bush and Tony Blair And fourth, many espouse a relativist outlook,
believing that other countries have equally valid systems or political organisations.
As a result, Britain spends little on democracy-promotion and focuses mainly on technical processes of accountability. Development is turned into mathematical formulae – so many bed-nets and
vaccinations delivers so much development.
This reasoning is flawed – not to mention embarrassing for a country like England, which gave the world parliamentary sovereignty. The idea that our aim is just to make people richer rather freer
is morally dubious. Few people starved on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
But the argument against democracy-promotion is additionally problematic. Rwanda’s success is easily reversible – progress has to be measured by means other than the five-year programme.
Even China’s future progress remains unclear. It has a large underdeveloped countryside and will soon face the demographic consequences of its one-child policy. Beijing’s ability to handle the
demands of political representation that comes with higher per capita income is also uncertain.
Equally importantly, long-term poverty-alleviation will not take place as long as it is mainly about external inputs and international assistance. It will only happen when governments are
responsive to their citizens – responsive to changes in nutritional requirements, class-room sizes, the spread of diseases – and able to create an environment conducive to private-sector growth.
This cannot happen through a technical process of accountability alone – like installing computer systems in health ministries – or the generosity of British tax-payers and Bill Gates. It
requires democratic accountability, which can happen only through political competition, functioning public institutions, a free press and a rules-based free-market.
Britain needs to put democracy-promotion back into its foreign and development policies. It needs to focus not only on promoting short-term stability – as the National Security Strategy says – but
on promoting the longer-term cause of progress, namely liberal democracy and free-markets.
Naturally, this should be done sensitively, with a long-term vision and without recourse to military force. But as DfiD re-thinks its bilateral budget, the Government should appoint a Freedom
Minister who can ensure money is spent on democracy-enhancing programmes, and governance reforms in the developing world not just technical aid.