False Choice Between Development, Democracy




The relationship between democracy, development, the heated academic and policy debate as to which one should come first has yet to be resolved. It continues to be a bone of contention in academics and policy dominion. Three schools of thought stand out as to how democracy and development are related; the democracy first argument, development first thesis, democracy and development unrelated proposal.

The relation between democracy and development in Ethiopia is also subject to such academic and policy debates. For one to have a general framework, I will begin with exploring the thesis. The “democracy first” thesis asserts that due to regular elections, democratic regimes need to respond to the demands of their citizens and societal groups. The institutional arrangement of election is the key for democracies to have better economic growth.

In addition, due to a number of characteristic features of democracy, such as accountability, checks and balances, openness and the free flow of information, democracies usually outperform non-democracies on most indicators of economic and social well-being. This thesis underlines that democracy is a precondition for inclusive, sustainable, just, broad-based, and equitable economic development.

The question that remains unresolved is how institutions, establishments, and arrangements important for enforcing democratic values can be realized unless there is an economic development that can serve as a minimum material threshold. Free, fair, periodic election; free, independent and vibrant media, law enforcing institutions particularly and building democratic institutions generally are not free of charge. They need money. There is no such thing as a free lunch in the slightest sense of the term in the process of building a democratic system.

Development first theory avows that economic development creates industrialization, urbanization, widespread education and literacy, wealth and a strong middle class whose concern with the protection of its rights and the issues of public affairs. These are important, to development theorists, to serve as a substructure for democracy. The question that they do not also resolve is that development needs to be equitable, inclusive, broad-based and sustainable. To take any society to the next step, be it democracy or any higher form of societal value and development to be of this quality.

Related to this is what is called political change process, of Samuel Huntington, that theorizes that a failure of the political structure and transformation. This to keep pace with economic takeoff resulting in a request for further opening-up of the political landscape and demanding for more equitable, just, broad-based, inclusive political development.

According to Samuel Huntington, political decay and instability take place since regimes do not have institutions to digest and to respond to the requests, demands, and expectations from the middle class and social groups. Political decay can be observed as a decrease in competence and credibility and the establishment of institutional corruption over a period of time. Sources of Political decay in addition to the failure of institutions to adapt to new circumstances is the natural human sociability is based on kin selection and reciprocal altruism – that is, the preference for networks.

While modern political orders seek to promote impersonal rule, elites in most societies tend to fall back on networks of family and friends, both as an instrument for protecting their positions and as the beneficiaries of their efforts. When they succeed, elites are said to “capture” the state, which reduces the latter’s legitimacy and makes it less accountable to the population as a whole. Long periods of peace and prosperity often provide the conditions for spreading capture by elites, which can lead to political crisis if followed by an economic downturn or external political shock.

What has just happened in Ethiopia is political decay where institutions failed to adapt to new questions, demands, and expectations-circumstance- resulteing from the widespread higher education, and fast and unregulated information communication, economic and social progress, long period of peace witnessed in the last decade or so. Adding an insult to the injury is the widespread rent-seeking, resulting in state capture. Elites capture instruments of state power to make self -enrichment at the expense of the benefit and rights of the whole population.

Some scholars have argued that accountable political systems have self-correcting mechanisms to prevent decay: if governments perform poorly or corrupt elites capture the state, the non-elites can simply vote them out of office. This is not the case in Ethiopia where institutions are either weak or non-existent to make that self-correction.

Democracy-development unrelated argument claims that democracy and development are separate socio-economic and political phenomena. To this perspective, democracy, and economic development are separate aspects of the polity. The two are only related with the additional intervening variable called strategic coordination. Economic development in China and Russia some claim results in/from no democracy. There is something called strategic coordination for economic development to transform any society to democracy and for democracy to be the best means of economic development.

Strategic coordination refers to “the set of activities that people must engage in to win political power in a given situation. Such activities include disseminating information, recruiting and organizing opposition members, choosing leaders, and developing a viable strategy to increase the group’s power and to influence policy.”

Since economic development generates some preconditions, such as industrialization, urbanization, information circulation, strong middle classes and more educated citizens, which are beneficial to organize opposition groups. To demand promoting democracy, political elites in authoritarian regimes try their best to destroy strategic coordination by middle classes or opposition. In other words, if autocrats can break up or weaken strategic coordination of their political challengers, the connection between economic development and democracy will be “cut off,” and they can also avoid the emergence of democratization.

This means economic development and democracy are important in and of themselves and on their own right, ones influence on the other quit depends on what De Mesquita & Downs call Strategic coordination.

Democracy and development are not an either-or question in Ethiopia. Political reform is important to create conditions to economic developments. Universal principles of democracy and good governance which can be further particularized as transparent, accountable, effective, efficient, equality, equity, inclusive, participatory system, rule of law, constitutionalism are all important to mobilize the four factors of production. Labour, capital, land, and entrepreneurship can only be effectively mobilized through the above important democratic principles.

Ethiopia is a constitutionally democratic state where the constitution recognizes fundamental human and democratic individual and group rights and freedoms and gives wider coverage to those rights.

The preamble of the constitution is pretty clear to point out that the rule of law is the foundation for a political community, that the constitution aspires to build to ensure lasting peace, guarantee democratic order, and advance socio-economic development. Rule of law is, in turn, a cardinal fundamental of democracy and a democratic system.

The constitution further expresses that the promulgators are convinced that establishing a political community requires full respect of individual and peoples fundamental freedoms and rights, ensuring equality. A further reading of the preamble of the constitution informs that building one economic community is necessary to create sustainable and mutually supportive conditions for ensuring fundamental human and democratic rights and freedoms.

This is an unequivocal expression of the importance of democracy to socio-economic development and the indispensability of economic development to create a sustainable and mutually supportive condition for democratic principles. This means democracy and development are not an either-or options in Ethiopia, in fact, both democracy and development are a question of death and life. Ensuring fast economic development and building democracy and democratic system are the alpha and omega of Ethiopia’s every public policy.

That is the official assertion for all practical purposes and intents. Though Ethiopia manages to achieve double-digit economic development, the political development illustrated through democracy as form of government and constitutionalism are far from practice in the strict term of our constitution.

The government could have used the relatively fast industrialization, urbanization, education and literacy, graduation from absolute poverty as an important material and cultural foundation to democracy and building democratic system. Opposition parties and some commentators on Ethiopian politics accuse the incumbent government of failing to strategically coordinate economic development and democracy so that improvements in the economic sphere could have been used as substructure and foundation to political reforms like establishing vibrant media, competitive political parties, strong civil societies, participatory political culture, and civic minded and informed citizens. They go on accusing the government of ‘cutting off’ the strategic coordination by opponents.

They claim that the government cut off their attempt to disseminate information about the weakness of the incumbent and their alternatives, recruit and organize opposition members, choose leaders, and develop a viable alternative strategy to increase the group’s power and to influence policy. The government, on the other hand, lambasts them for failing to discipline and establish themselves to be a fit to represent a particular segment of society; for failing to be a viable option/alternative to the incumbent for the society.

The government could have used improvements in information technology and infrastructure, expansion in education as an important tool to facilitate political socialization thereby recruiting more sophisticated party members, convincing the critical mass to stand by it, creating consensus etc. In spite of that, the Ethiopian government in its official statement following the unrest in much of Oromia and Amhara revealed that the party and the government are in leadership decay. It has articulated that the political structure and transformation failed to keep pace with the fast economic takeoff.

The general assembly of EPRDF concludes that the request for further opening-up of the political landscape and demanding for more equitable, just, broad-based, inclusive political development. This has resulted partly from the astonishing double-digit economic performance. The General assembly of EPRDF acknowledged that it failed to have strong institutions to digest and to respond to the requests and demands from groups that may probably not be represented through the national first-past the post electoral system.

The government officials and the political structure failed to make transformation tantamount to the economic takeoff resulted from double-digit economic growth. The leadership failing to digest and respond to the demands from the young educated for fairer and just distribution of economic development and further inclusivity and opening-up in the political landscape of the multination.

Ethiopia should ensure strategic coordination between economic development and political development that political and institutional modernizations keep pace with economic take-off. This is also pivotal because ensuring true, sustainable, equitable, inclusive, broad-based, economic development is the raison d’être of the Ethiopian developmental state. The three important categories of democratic institutions (strong state, rule of law and accountability) constitute a strong political order required to establish and consolidate developmental state.

Hierarchical, centralized state that holds a monopoly on legitimate force over a defined territory, rule of law defined as a set of rules of behaviour. Also in the reflection of a broad consensus within the society, that is binding on even the most powerful political actors in the society. Accountability expressed in terms of government’s responsiveness to the interests of the whole society – the common good – rather than to just serve its own narrow self-interest. The three fundamental elements of the political order of Francis Fukuyama directly resonates with Ethiopian democratic developmental state, at least theoretically.



By Yohannes Gebeyehu
Yohannes Gebeyehu has a BA in Political Science and International Relations, did his graduate degrees in diplomacy and international relations. His areas of research interest ranges around public, foreign policy and institutional underpinnings.

Published on Jan 10,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 871]


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