The exact nature of the relationship between democracy and development is complex and has been much debated. The wave of democracy that swept across sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s was based on the belief of IFIs and western governments that democracy is a prior or parallel condition of development and not an outcome of it. This is a direct contradiction of the view held by modernisation theorists that economic and social development precede democracy (Leftwich 1993:605). In this essay, I shall argue that in the African context development is most likely to occur under democratic conditions but that maximising development requires a dispersal of political power that can only be fully achieved under a substantive democracy. While the democratic process can be initiated at any point in a country’s developmental trajectory, a number of factors must be in place before a country can become a substantive democracy and attain the expected developmental outcomes.
For the purposes of this essay, development is defined as economic and social progress that not only expands the capabilities of individuals but also empowers them with political freedom and participation (UNDP 2002:52). I adopt Larry Diamond’s definition of democracy as a system of government in which three key elements exist: ‘extensive competition’ amongst groups to rule, ‘a highly inclusive level of political participation’ by a broad base of society through regular and fair elections and ‘civil and political liberties…to ensure the integrity of political competition and participation.’(Samarasinghe 1994:7 quoting Diamond 1990)
The first part of the essay shall review the literature on the linkages between development and democracy, the second part will discuss the benefits of democracy over authoritarianism for development in the African context while the third part will review the reasons behind the failure of democracies in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve their desired developmental aims.
Correlation or Causation?
There is clearly a relationship between development and democracy. The EIU 2013 Democracy Index lists twenty-four full democracies in the world and twenty-two of these countries are ranked in the UNDP 2014 Human Development Index as having very high levels of human development with the remaining two have high levels of human development (EIU 2013; UNDP 2014). Despite this obvious correlation however, attempts to identify the nature and direction of the relationship between democracy and development have been inconclusive (Menocal 2007:11).
Modernisation theorists believe that development leads to democracy. Lipset, the main proponent of the modernisation theory, argued that a certain level of economic development was required for democracies to emerge and that the richer a country, the more likely that it will sustain democracy (Lipset 2014:75). Modernisation theorists posit that democracies emerge when economic growth produces an educated middle class which then demands to be included in the political decision making process. This theory is empirically supported by the experiences of democratisation in Britain and other western European countries. Here, democracy followed a period of industrialisation during which a series of social and cultural changes including urbanization and education led to a discarding of traditional values and to increased rationality, individual autonomy and self-expression values. Modernisation theorists believe that these democratic values are necessary for democracy to emerge and thrive and that without them democracy is not sustainable (Inglehart & Welzel 2009:37).
Opponents of the modernisation theory argue that the level of a country’s economic development has no effect on whether it becomes a democracy because democracies can and do emerge for reasons other than economic development, such as through war or external pressures. In addition, the…