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Guardian: Time to abandon the democracy vs dictatorship debate?

Mussolini praises Mubarak

Mussolini praises Mubarak

The Guardian has published this very thought-provoking article arguing we need to stop thinking so simplistically when it comes to pushing for political progress in other countries.

Well, who would argue with that?

But David Booth, with the Overseas Development Institute, actually appears to be suggesting donors and development organizations stop demanding dictatorial or authoritarian regimes convert to open and free democratic governance — especially in Africa. Booth says:

We should be thinking more actively about alternative ways of improving governance based on the “local reforms” and practical hybrid institutions that we are finding here and there in several countries (Ghana, Malawi, Niger), and more comprehensively in at least one (Rwanda).

Malawi? Wasn’t the British ambassador just kicked out for describing it as a dictatorship? Here’s a BBC columnist asking if Malawi is slipping back into dictatorship.

Now, that’s just the kind of simplistic thinking that bothers Booth. He says:

“It will help if we can avoid being diverted all the time into dictatorship v democracy debates.”

Help who, I wonder?

But let’s not dismiss this suggestion out-of-hand. Booth begins his article for The Guardian by noting that the uprisings throughout North Africa and the Middle East today are popularly viewed by some as promisingly similar to the “end of the Cold War” and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Booth says the events are indeed just as exciting and promising in their potential significance, potential for positive political change. But he also says they are troubling because, just as in 1989, there was a “one-size-fits-all” approach by the West in supporting democratic change.

Among the more lasting effects of 1989 on the rest of the world was a simple-minded, history-free concept of the politics of progress: liberal-democracy was the thing – for everyone, at all times.Thanks in part to Iraq and Afghanistan, we are, decades later, backing off from this self-confident universalism.

Thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan, Booth seems to be saying (though using a lot more nuanced, wonky lingo) that we need to consider “alternatives” to democratic government so as not to upset the chances for economic growth and development. He says:

As in Asia and earlier in Europe, it makes a difference whether the country’s elite succeeds in centralising management of the main economic “rents” and using them in ways that help to grow the national economy. Historically, this has been the crucial difference between those pre-capitalist regimes that usher in capitalism and those that block this transition indefinitely. Such differences, we argue, are far more important – including for the eventual prospects for democracy – than whether or not a country has the formal trappings of a competitive political system.

Sorry, but that just sounds like a really wordy argument for tolerating authoritarianism.

Haven’t we been accepting of lots of “alternatives” to democracy already in places like Saudi Arabia and, uh, Egypt? How stable did that last alternative turn out to be?

I think Booth makes a lot of good points about what’s gone wrong with development policies, but I’m not sure about the proposed plan to improve development by tolerating forms of government that may work economically at the expense of individual freedoms — assuming I understand what he’s saying.

For a more informed reaction to Booth’s proposal, see Duncan Green‘s detailed analysis at Oxfam International’s Poverty to Power blog

Says Green:

My conclusion both from the briefing and the discussion at the ODI launch recently, is that the logical conclusion from (Booth’s argument) is that there is simply no role for donors in governance work – it’s just too complex, too context specific, too likely to go wrong.

Booth is correct that development is complex and likely to often go wrong.

But I don’t think you can fight poverty by avoiding the politics.


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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.