Efficient dictatorships or incompetent democracies ?By FREDERICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI | Monday, December 12 2011 at 08:44
Recently, I have found myself embroiled in animated discussions about governance and poverty in Africa. One discussion entailed figuring out lessons sub-Saharan Africa could draw from the popular revolts that have shaken up the North African countries of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
It is months now since the revolts exploded onto the streets and kept millions watching television images of the fast-paced events. The media has mostly moved on to hotter topics such as the elections in Putin’s Russia and in Joseph Kabila’s Democratic Republic of Congo. However, among Africa’s political and intellectual elites, the issues are still hotly debated.
And so they featured at a recent meeting that had brought together a range of African luminaries, among them three retired presidents, diplomats, academics, and top international civil servants and policy experts, to talk about governance, peace, and security in Africa. The former heads of state had been wheeled in to inject a bit of practical wisdom based on personal experience, into what would otherwise have been dry academic analyses.
Watching the three men walk about and mingle comfortably, evidently enjoying themselves, was more than simple testimony to how there is life after State House.
The Arab Spring and its implications cropped up as discussions progressed. Those who had known the three countries well prior to the revolts confessed to having been surprised by what happened. As far as they had observed while on visits there, the countries had seemed to have done well and continued to do so economically. The ousted governments had not only invested heavily in education and health care, they had also expanded opportunities for multitudes in so many other domains. So what had happened?
A good life
A degree of consensus emerged around the view that it was the way those governments had behaved in the political arena that had been their undoing. They had apparently paid too much attention to working towards ensuring the good life in material terms for their people, and too little if at all, to issues of political participation and, more generally, democratisation. The message to other African governments seemed to be clear: Ignore democratisation at your peril. I wondered if things could have been that simple.
There is another view, that far from politics being the main reason behind the revolts, it was possibly not that immediately important. A key factor floated by analysts looking beyond simply politics was the frustration felt by a large number of unemployed young people with no hope of finding decent jobs. Indeed, some experts have seized on this to warn African governments about the “youth bulge,” jargon for excessively large numbers of young people compared with older groups in a specific population, and to emphasise the importance of rapid job creation.
This raises a huge conundrum for dictatorial governments, which are at the same time hopeless at providing public services, the very foundation of the good life that their citizens want for themselves and those around them. What should come first: Poverty eradication and social change, or democratisation? This is no idle question. A choice has to be made.
Anyone who cares to know, knows that few African governments possess the capacity in human and financial resource terms to handle the heavy demands of democratisation or deepening democracy and rapid social change or job creation simultaneously. And here we can also look to the experiences of East Asia and older Western democracies.
They show that not only has sequencing been part of the history of development, but also that processes of rapid social change have never been entirely democratic. The reason for this is fairly simple: Bringing about social change entails the implementation of unpopular but necessary measures that weak governments facing determined but possibly misguided opposition in fully democratic contexts would seek to avoid.
There is no better illustration of this than the experience of implementing structural adjustment programmes in Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. The more democratic governments were, the less they were able to implement the full package of measures recommended by the IMF and World Bank. Neither of the two leading performers in Africa, Museveni’s Uganda and Rawlings’ Ghana, was a model democracy. Which raises the question: What really is more important in a poor developing country, between a democratic government that does not provide the necessities of life and a semi-autocracy that excels at formulating and implementing policies geared at raising living standards?
Consider this: A democratic government is by nature easy to remove and replace with another. An incompetent one can and may therefore be exchanged for a more capable one, albeit one that lacks the courage to implement unpopular but much-needed policies. On the other hand, a poverty-reducing and living standards-raising dictatorship sows the seeds of democracy in the process, rendering itself unsustainable.
If both are correct, a key lesson to draw from the events in North Africa would be that people living under efficient and effective dictatorships or semi-democracies are likely to be better-off in the long run than those ruled by incompetent democracies.
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