Democracy & Development:
Restoring social justice at  the core of good governance

Part I of this article appeared in the Midweek Review yesterday

Gowher Rizvi

In terms of debt management, democracies showed markedly better performance while the countries with staggering and unmanageable debts were from the authoritarian groups. This is not surprising. Democracies enjoy legitimacy and therefore, unlike military regimes, do not have to borrow desperately to buy support. Popular legitimacy gives elected governments the mandate and authority to raise taxes and are therefore less dependent on foreign aid.

Finally, in terms of income distribution, the performance of democracies was superior. Even in those democracies where income inequality has not narrowed, the gap did not broaden, while in the authoritarian groups the income gap widened. Governments dependent on votes have to cater to all sections of the population and provide political mechanisms and pathways through which the deprived groups can make sure their claims are heard. Authoritarian regimes depend upon the support of narrow influential groups and therefore pander more to those groups. It should be stressed that income inequality is not only in itself undesirable but also creates sectional and regional tensions and conflicts which in turn disrupts economic development. The sample is obviously much too small to make a firm generalization, but it is sufficiently indicative to suggest that even on purely economic performance (which is only a part of the development process) democracies have a sound track record.


Having argued that economic growth in democracies fare well in the long term, one important caveat needs to be added. Experience has taught us that the excessive concern with the rate of economic growth is sometimes misplaced. Nor is the contention that economic growth is an essential precondition for political stability particularly well-founded. This is putting the cart before the horse and confusing the means with the ends. The development of a sound political system and democratic institutions are prerequisites for development and indeed a sine qua non for the benefits of development to be enjoyed by the majority of the people. Part of the reason for confusing the means with the ends is that, until recently, development economists used a narrow concept of development. Development was viewed in terms of certain critical indices: the per capita income, the rate of increase in the GDP, the ratio of savings, the level of industrialisation, and so forth. There was very little concern with the qualitative improvement of life which must be the end purpose of all development activities. The quality of life cannot be measured merely in terms of per capita income or the average life span, but must also take into account popular participation and the accountability of the regime to the public, the ability of the population to read and write, the choice to pursue scientific and literary interests, freedom of expression, association and movement, the preservation of human rights and safeguards against intrusion into individual liberty, the enforcement of social justice through income redistribution, protection against discrimination based or racial, religious or ethnic origins, a guarantee of the rights of minorities, and equality before the law and equal access to the benefits of the state. These are not merely liberal values we cherish; they are essential preconditions and necessary ingredients for development.

Today this new paradigm of development is fairly well accepted. Development is no longer seen as one-dimensional where progress is measured primarily in terms of economic growth and an accumulation of wealth. There is a consensus that development is about enhancing individual freedoms, expanding human capabilities, widening choices, and assuring citizens their basic human rights. Poverty is not merely a shortfall in incomes. Human beings are multi-dimensional and so is the scourge of poverty. Human deprivations such as ill-health, gender discrimination, poor education, and malnutrition are constituents of poverty. This deprivation is caused by the poverty of opportunities, not just by the poverty of incomes. And the denial of opportunities is dependent on a lack of economic opportunities, as well as on the denial of political, social, and cultural opportunities.

Such a ‘human development’ perspective does not in any way undermine the significance of economic expansion. On the contrary, it draws an important distinction between means (income expansion) and the ends of development emphasizing in the process the need to ensure that growth get adequately translated into tangible changes affecting the quality of people’s lives. The human development paradigm recognizes the close interconnections between the fulfillment of social and economic rights and political and civil rights.

The new paradigm also takes into account human security concerns. Human security is about the security of people’s lives and not just about territorial security. It is related to the persistence of human poverty and the negative effects of war in alleviating poverty. It is about protecting adequately and effectively for the people’s health, education, employment, and social protection. Embedded in the concept of human security is a concern for human dignity, democracy, participation, and pluralism. And most important of all, particularly important in the context of Sri Lanka, the respect for human rights. And if Neelan were here with us today he would have made sure that I qualified ‘human rights’ by adding ‘in all its varied dimensions’.

To say that development economists have confused the means with the ends is not to suggest that they have no role in policy prescriptions. Indeed, Professor Amartya Sen reminds us that some of the major ideas put forward by the development economists remain valid. The rate of growth, the state of industrialisation and the level of unemployment are useful indicators and give us a fairly good understanding of the state of economic growth. But growth is not the same thing as development but only a small part of the development process. Profess Sen is quite emphatic that growth only matters because it is a means to an end and not an end in itself; it enables other desirable goals to be realized.

We have argued so far that economic growth is important in that it helps to bring about a qualitative improvement of life; that only when the benefits of development are actually transferred to all sections of the people are the ends of development actually achieved; and that the benefits of development are better distributed through the mechanism of democratic governance. This does not to imply that economic growth and democracy is in any way incompatible, nor is there any reason to believe that the economic performances of democracies less successful than those of authoritarian regimes. In fact, democracies even in the developing world can boast of impressive economic records.

Continued tomorrow

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