Why democracies fail to deliver


Is democracy the only kind of political system that can deliver on prosperity and stability? asks Alina Rocha Menocal, a senior research fellow in the politics and governance programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London. The answer must be “no” as there are many examples that show that democracy is not a necessary condition to achieve development, she told the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s 25th anniversary conference (above).

Why has it proven so difficult for democracies to deliver? Menocal writes for Open Democracy. Democracies operate within conditions and contexts that offer opportunities but also pose distinct challenges when it comes to promoting (shared) prosperity and development. It is absolutely essential for us to recognise these challenges because too much is expected of these incipient democracies, much too soon:

* While democracy may well foster more participatory and inclusive decision-making processes, this does not mean that they are automatically more effective. In fact, there is nothing about democracy that, by virtue of its nature, leads to better developmental outcomes, whether in terms of stability, prosperity or anything else.

* Under a democratic regime, public authorities are expected to engage with a wider range of actors when deciding on and implementing policy. This creates more “veto players”. Proliferation of interests encourages fragmentation within the state and society, and obstructs the emergence of a united front for progressive reform.

* Greater access to the state also means that bureaucracy can more easily become politicised, and the need to respond to many narrow and particularistic demands stretches state capacity to the maximum.

* And while elections are essential to foster the legitimacy, accountability and responsiveness of a political system, electoral competition, or what Thomas Carothers has referred to as “relentless electoralism”, often generates incentives that foment fragmentation and undermine coherent policy-making based on long-term priorities.

* And not least there is the pervasive problem of money in politics and whose voices are being heard, and this is an issue that is as real in democracies in developing countries as it is in well-established democracies like the UK or the US.

Just because democracies face challenges, especially among those in developing settings, does not mean that the struggle for democracy is not worthwhile,” Menocal adds:

The work of the international development community is committed to fostering more inclusive states and societies, but it needs to be grounded on a more nuanced understanding of how change actually happens. … Helping democracies to deliver is a formidable endeavour, but one that is well worth pursuing. However imperfect, democracy is still better than the available alternatives.


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