Democracy that delivers?

In Malawi, there seem to be a widespread belief that democracy equals development. Yet, 25 years into the era of multi-party democracy, Malawi is still among the poorest nations of the world with more than half the population below the poverty line. As such, it is hardly surprising that many Malawians ask why democracy hasn’t delivered on development.

According to the latest Afrobarometer, a substantial share of the population in Malawi is not satisfied with the “way democracy works”. The result is somewhat distressing for anyone who cares about the democratic development in the country. To rub it in, many are pointing to States like Rwanda, China and Ethiopia, which seem to prosper despite their varieties of authoritarianism. 

However, it is time to debunk the democracy-development nexus. If not, this notion may eventually undermine democracy in Malawi.

First, the distinction is misleading. The world’s wide variation of regime types cannot be divided into two opposites. You’ll end up lumping together Sweden, Liberia and Venezuela as ‘democracies’.  Second, authoritarian regimes are both capable of both rapid growth and economic disasters. Furthermore, although democracies may not have failed as fundamentally as Mobuto’s Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, they are no guarantee for growth. You will find varieties of economic performance in both categories: from Botswana and Mauritius to Rwanda and Ethiopia. 

Researchers interested in how states manage to break out of poverty and develop have coined the term ‘developmental States’. Initially, the term was applied to describe the ‘miracle’ of the newly industrialised countries in East Asia. In today’s Africa, Ethiopia and Rwanda rightly stands out with a fourfold increase in GDP between 2005 and 2015, and average growth rates between 8 and 10 per cent. Although each country is unique, researchers point to a number of common factors that characterise these successes:

l The emergence of a strong and professionalized (meritocratic) civil service that is able to protect good policies from changes in the political leadership

lA pro-business government backing and incentivising domestic firms to invest in important sectors.

lThe difficult circumstances that make development essential for the government’s survival.

l Successful leadership transitions that sustain rather than erode growth (leaders’ development intent is crucial)

lInvestment in smallholder agriculture and rural infrastructure

lThe absence of one specific model but rather an adaptive trial and error approach

The idea that liberal democracies is a necessary condition for development is not supported by recent evidence

Another important factor is of course the surrounding economic and political context. A dictator can come along and reap the low hanging fruits of high commodity prices, new markets or favourable climatic conditions. Likewise, a democratic leader can certainly struggle in the absence of these circumstances.

However, the crux of the argument is that development comes down to the intent to produce and follow through on sound and good policies.

For example, although it took Rwanda ten years to finalise a strategy on how to raise the productivity of smallholder farmers, they initially managed to follow through on their policies. The strategy was prompted by some of the same circumstances you can observe in Malawi: recurrent food crises and continued high levels of poverty.

Likewise, Malawi has a comprehensive policy framework for the agriculture sector, which incorporates persistent and new challenges.

The question, however, is whether the government is able to follow through and implement its plan.

In short, development cut across the crude democracy-dictatorship dichotomy.

Both categories (and anything in between) can embark on good enough policies and governance.

Democracy has its weaknesses, some of which we can see clearly in Malawian politics, but we shouldn’t blame democracy (in itself) for the lack of development in Malawi. n

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