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In recent times, the political discourse in Bangladesh has touched upon the question of democracy and development. It was triggered by comments from a Minister and a senior ruling party leader who said, “We believe in democracy, but not too much democracy,” and argued that this is good for development and progress.

His comments attracted a flurry of criticisms as well as commendations and a muddled opinion piece by a senior self-exiled journalist in this column.

This piece is not about different shades of democracy. It is about the broader question, “Is democracy good for development?” Nevertheless, it would be useful to have a working definition of democracy to answer the question.

There is almost universal consensus about the six basic attributes of democracy, irrespective of the form it takes. They are: (i) established popular sovereignty, (ii) majority rule, (iii) individual rights, (iv) free and fair elections, (v) citizen involvement and (vi) open compromise.

A true democracy upholds the basic human rights of its citizens as enshrined in constitution. These rights include freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equal protection under the law, the right to a fair trial and a right to privacy without unwarranted intrusion by the government.

In a democratic government, powers are separated and shared among different branches and agencies to ensure that the government does not have a concentration of power in one area. There is also a process by which the different branches of government can check and balance one another.

The modern democracy is a pluralistic one, and in this sense, based on diversity (pluralism – from the Latin pluralis – multiple) of public interests (economic, social, cultural, religious, ethnic, group, regional, etc.) and forms of their expression through, for example, political agitation (free to organise), free media, free and fair elections, etc.

Democracy is a form of governing that allows various social groups to express freely their interests and find out compromising solutions in competitive struggle. Thus, politics is a field of intergroup cooperation and competition, struggle and compromises, where the state acts as an arbiter to ensure observance of law, that the rules of the game in competition of groups are adhered to and the power is not monopolised. In short, the state is responsible for robust functioning of all sectors of the social system and maintaining social justice.

Having outlined the basic features of modern democracy, let me now return to the main issue: “Is democracy good for development?”. Ironically, there is no consensus; and those who attempt to limit the attributes of democracy, claim the legitimacy of their action on the grounds of promoting development. In our historical experience, we have seen Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s “basic” democracy and Bangabandhu’s “democracy of the exploited”, in the words of the self-exiled senior journalist.

The superior economic performance of authoritarian regimes in East Asia led Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew to promote the concept of a choice between two D’s: Democracy vs. Discipline. Mr. Lee claimed that countries needed discipline more than democracy for accelerating development.

So, it is no wonder that the senior Minister referred to the Singapore’s model in his comments cited above. He also mentioned Malaysia’s model,and here lies the crux of the problem.

It is well known that while both models limited the attributes of modern democracy, the outcomes in terms of development have not been the same. In the case of Malaysia, the stellar economic performance was short-lived. It was also punctured in other “semi-democracies” in East Asia, such as Indonesia.

The constraining of citizen’s participation in ensuring transparency, or the freedom of expression against the concentration of power led to the rise of “crony capitalism”, characterised by corruption of elites connected to power. Many observers believe that the root cause of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 was this crony capitalism.

Countries that survived or are doing well now are the ones which either had better democratic institutions or undertook radical reform towards democratisation (e.g. Indonesia). South Korea and Taiwan went through this process of democratisation in the late 1980s and early 1990s.On the other hand, Malaysia, which failed to undertake democratisation reform is mired in political crises one after the other and is caught in what some say is a “middle-income trap”.

The problem is, we find many more examples of Suharto or Marcos or Ershad or Ayub Khan who usurped power and introduced various forms of limited democracy in the name of development. Their limited democracies (Ershad excepted) did produce some periods of rapid economic growth; but they collapsed. On the other hand, the probability of finding a Lee Kuan Yew is very small, perhaps one in a thousand.

The beauty of modern democracy is that we don’t have to search to get a Lee Kuan Yew by a rare chance and get stuck with a bad government in the process; we can replace a bad government with the one that respects human rights, has checks and balance of power and ensures free and fair elections.

Modern democracy may not produce stellar economic growth rates, but is superior to illiberal democracy in safeguarding stable economic growth by encouraging free thought, experimentation, and innovation without fear or prejudice. It also ensures social justice or equity and environmental sustainability by allowing people’s participation in the decision making process and allowing them to voice their concerns.

More importantly, development is not confined to a narrow economic dimension. At the United Nations, the citizens of the world are going to adopt during the coming General Assembly session sustainable development goals defined in terms of three dimensions – stable economic growth, social justice (or equity) and environmental protection to ensure greater freedom.

Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, one of Bengal’s brightest, defined development as freedom – freedom from hunger and oppression; freedom to pursue one’s own development and attain his or her full potential as a human being.That is why according to Sen, it is a wrong question to ask whether a country is fit for democracy. Instead, a country has to become fit through democracy.

Finally, modern democracy’s appeal does not rest on its instrumental values or its ability to produce high economic growth. Rather, the appeal of democracy is derived from its intrinsic values for human life and well-being, which is facilitated by citizen’s ability to exercise civil and political rights or political and social participation as social beings that in turn ensures Sen’s development as freedom.

Thus, there is little wonder that people across the world — ranging from advanced to least developed countries — are willing to lay down their lives for democracy which allows the attainment of one’s full potential as a human being. This has happened more than once in Bangladesh, the epitome of which was Nur Hussain’s martyrdom with the imprint of “down with autocracy; liberate democracy” on his body.

Dr. Anis Chowdhury is a former professor of Economics, University of Western Sydney, Australia.

Readers are requested to also read my related earlier opinion piece, “Democracy, Disillusion and Development”, on New Age.

3 Responses to “Democracy and Development”

  1. Syed Imtiaz Ali

    Without much ado and greying of hair, the question “is democracy good for development” is like asking a flying bird who coud not find much food on that day, ‘will you like bowl full of food served in a cage regularly and not be able to fly any more’?
    How was Europe rebuilt after the two world wars, while still practising democracy? Without free spirit and freedom of work, thought and freedom in decision making, NOTHING is worthwhile. If governance is good and organised, right people in right place can work near wonders, including ‘development’. Development can never take place without development of the mind. Let us not forget that even once.

  2. mohammad zaman

    Lee Kuan is an aberration and not a model. We also need to understand the education and personal integrity of Lee Kuan before equating our honorable PM with him. He was a dictator, but he did provide good and honest government for the masses :}

    William Bernstein’s “Birth of Plenty” is a wonderful book and a must-read to understand the underlying factors that determine sustained economic development. This book also comes in audio for those who get stuck in Dhaka traffic …

    AGK’s piece was nothing more than simple genuflect.

    Appreciate the wonderful write up by Anis Chowdhury. Hopefully some of the decision makers will read this piece.

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