Democracy and development: the contemporary context

Lack of people’s participation in an undemocratic or insufficiently democratic order leads to skewed and inequitable development. Transparency and accountability are absent or present only inadequately. Politicians and public servants find scopes to behave irresponsibly and indulge in corruption. Such system tends to become authoritarian under personal rule and cannot be easily reached by the people. When democracy is in exile by dictatorship or disguised autocracy, people at large are deprived of having their say in the processes of public policy formulation and implementation, writes Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley

002DEMOCRACY is regarded as the hallmark of the present-age civilisation. In recent times, a mighty wave of democratisation has swept the developing and less developed countries. Analysts agree that in today’s world, democracy has no viable alternative. It was especially in the 1990s that the tide of democracy submerged and annihilated dictatorial regimes in many countries. The same process put an end to dictatorial rule in the former Soviet Union and its East European socialist allies. In other countries where non-ideological autocratic regimes existed, similar democratic developments demolished them. The energetic emergence of democracy was accompanied by increasing dominance of open market or market-friendly economy. Private enterprise flourished as a result of flowering of democracy on one hand and emergence of open market economy on the other. In consequence, there was relatively rapid and widespread economic development. As democracy advanced so did open-market economy. It seemed that the trend of events synthesised the two developing processes.
To regard democracy and politico-economic development as contradictory is to each other is to go against the stream of history. Some maintain that rapid and impressive economic development has been possible under autocratic regime in several developing and less developed countries. Economic analysts have, however, found as a result of research that economic development in democracies is far more balanced and sustainable than under dictatorship. The most important thing in a democratic state is that the people can freely and spontaneously participate in planning and implementing the development process. Participation can effectively indicate the best path to meaningful economic development. Displaying apparently impressive statistics and data regarding economic development will sound hollow to ordinary people if their basic needs of food, shelter and clothing are not fulfilled and widespread unemployment haunts society. In consequence, increasing discontent and intense dissatisfaction dominate the minds of the poor masses. Social stability becomes shaky. Political processes become polluted and distorted and economic development cannot be truly realised. This is the reason democratic participation is a sine qua non of balanced growth and symmetrical economic development. In a society where economic development is positive and distribution is equitable, it is not possible for those in power to forcibly snatch away rights of the people. In our country in recent times, some quarters of the ruling party are loudly claiming that limiting democracy helps faster and greater economic development. It is necessary to judge such a statement carefully in the context of our own political history. Excepting the two-year rule of military-backed caretaker government, all governments in Bangladesh since the beginning of 1990s have come to power through democratic processes.
Nevertheless, there are dispute and controversy at home and abroad about the national elections of January 2014 in which 154 out of 300 members of the parliament were elected uncontested. It is necessary to remember that this happened in the context of boycott and resistance to elections by the opposition parties led by the BNP.
They alleged that national elections in the absence of caretaker government and under the incumbent Awami League government would not be free and fair. Whatever that may be, the parliamentary elections of 2014 remained questioned. As a result, the party in power despite its massive majority and stress on economic development cannot but suffer from a certain lack of confidence. It is psychologically in a delicate situation. Despite the authority’s flaunting ostensibly impressive statistics of growth and developments, investors in the private sector are not considering the economic environment investment-friendly. That is, perhaps, the reason only the public sector seems to have considerable investments while the private sector is shy. Indigenous private investment being inadequate, banks and financial institutions are overflowing with idle money. Foreign direct investment has also been far less than desirable. If the private-sector investment does not substantially increase, the dream of rapid and comprehensive economic development will remain unrealised. It is essential to generate confidence and hope in the minds of investors by creating positive hopes about the viability and sustainability of a healthy political environment. A smoothly functioning democracy with sound governance ensured by strong state institutions can secure all-round development.
Question may arise as to how a relatively loose system that is democracy can help greater development than tightly organised and avowedly efficient dictatorial rule? Pluralistic and multi-party democracy succeeds in delivering goods in terms of socio-economic development when it is accompanied by well organised, competent and autonomous institutions unhampered by disorderly political interference. True democracy like genuine freedom does not mean licence. The heart of pure democracy lies in good governance which builds, promotes and sustains order. An orderly society is the indispensable condition of sustainable development in all its vital dimensions: political, economic and social.
In less developed societies, democracy faces onerous challenges. There are many post-colonial states in which this situation prevails and Bangladesh is one among such polities. The problem in Bangladesh is not creating institutions but in restoring them. Bangladesh, even at its sanguinary birth, inherited a copying set of state institutions. Polluted and chaotic politics dominated by myopic personal leadership damaged and dwarfed these institutions and made democracy uncertain by politics of division and confrontation. This has handicapped development and slowed down and limited the pace of socio-economic progress. In the case of Bangladesh as in instances of other such societies, the malady is rooted in deeper socio-political ground realities.
Despondent viewers of the darkness of political societies of the less developed kind such as SP Huntington hold, the ‘desirable and needed’ expansion and consolidation of government power has not occurred in the post-colonial modernising societies — in many of these. Their ‘problem is not to hold elections but to create organisations. The primary problem is not liberty but the creation of a legitimate public order. Men may, of course, have order without liberty but they cannot have liberty without order. Authority has to exist before it can be limited and it is authority that is in scarce supply in those modernising societies where government is at the mercy of alienated intellectuals, rambunctious colonels and rioting students.’
The major agents of political development in developing societies have been described as (i) political leaders, (ii) political parties, and (iii) the military. In some instances, labour, bureaucracy and the intelligentsia may demand special attention as significant factors.
The dangers of personal leadership remaining too personal may be overwhelming. Political institutions may not grow under such a personal system. Legitimacy and legitimising succession may become a challenge that cannot be successfully faced. Uncertainties created by these challenges lead to the throttling of economic development of all kinds especially balanced growth and equitable development.
Democracy and development are complementary processes. This was proved in our country by the fact that replacement of the pre-1990 dictatorial regime with democratic governments led to a definite increase in the growth rate of our GDP. In the 1980s, the growth rate was a little over 4 per cent a year. By contrast, during the 1990s and also in recent years from 2000 to 2014, the growth rate has been approximately around 6 per cent a year. The government in power since 2009 has expressed satisfaction at its success at national economic development. At the same time, it has complained that in recent years, especially 2013, 2014 and 2015, the political turmoil and violence following the BNP-led opposition resistance considerably slowed down the pace of development.
There is little doubt that democratic environment generating political stability can alone lead to sustainable development. In politically stable environment underpinned by effective democracy with good governance, Bangladesh cannot only rapidly increase its growth rate by a point or two but also achieve a double-digit rate.
Democracy is a must for balanced growth and symmetrical development. In a real democracy, elections are not rigged, the opposition is not suppressed and human rights are not violated. In a democracy, the freedom of the media, speech and assembly remains unfettered.
In such a system, it is possible for the ruling and the opposition parties alternatively to come to power. If elections are free and fair people can choose the political party that really serves them, bring meaningful economic development and ensure people’s welfare. Thus, the party that ensures participatory development through democratic processes secures its prospects in the polls.
There is a profound relationship between democracy and development, while development may be possible without democracy, democracy cannot exist without equitable development. Development achieved by dictators and autocrats do not fully reflect people’s will and aspiration. Thus, impressive highways and gigantic buildings may not serve the purpose of the people. Only a handful rich and mighty may be benefited by these although roads and highways may serve the purpose of a vibrant economy with desirable investment. It is worthwhile to remember that during the 1950s, some Asian and African dictators built large and expensive structures in the name of development at a great cost to the people. These only served their egos without helping their people. This shows what hollow results development without democracy may produce.
There is another dark side of development without democracy. Lack of people’s participation in an undemocratic or insufficiently democratic order leads to skewed and inequitable development. Transparency and accountability are absent or present only inadequately. Politicians and public servants find scopes to behave irresponsibly and indulge in corruption. Such system tends to become authoritarian under personal rule and cannot be easily reached by the people. On the contrary, the rich and the privileged often have an easy excess to the rulers. They lobby effectively to secure their class, group or coterie interest by influencing the policy makers, planners and decision makers. When democracy is in exile by dictatorship or disguised autocracy, people at large are deprived of having their say in the processes of public policy formulation and implementation.
Development without democracy remains unable to ensure the common good.

Dr Mizanur Rahman Shelley, founder chairman of the Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh and editor of the quarterly Asian Affairs, was a former teacher of political science at Dhaka University (1964-1967), former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (1967-1980) and former non-partisan technocrat cabinet minister of Bangladesh (1990). 

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