Democracy versus development debate revisited

In any functional democracy, civil society has a very strong and positive role to play, by remaining constructively engaged, through a critical examination of government policies and by exercising vigilance to safeguard the interest of people, and giving voice to the marginalised sections of the poor. When democracy is juxtaposed to development, this also invariably leads to a shrinking space for civil society. This is because there is then also a logic to think that the dissenting voice of civil society undermines the cause of development, writes Mustafizur Rahman

005THE discourse around the nature of the interface and interdependence between democracy and development, indeed, has a long history. This discourse featured prominently in the colonial period when aspirations about ‘democracy’ was seen as a powerful tool in the struggle for political freedom of the people of the colonies in their wars of independence against the colonial and neo-colonial masters. This is not to say that ‘democracy’ was understood in the same way by all the different forces participating in the anti-colonial movements. One recalls the ideological debate between the ‘bourgeoisie democracy’ and the ‘socialist democracy’ and between the many shades in between. Our own independence struggle, led by Bangabandhu, had witnessed the urge for democracy as a strong and integral element of our people’s fight against the neo-colonial rule of successive regimes and rulers of Pakistan. Thus, the aspirations for economic liberation and democratic governance were closely entwined in our own freedom struggle in which the Awami League itself had played the leading role. When after so much bloodshed we had gained our independence, the concept of democracy was enshrined as one of the four founding pillars of our constitution. If one reads democracy together with the other three pillars in the constitution, it would be clear that the notion of democracy was perceived from a broader remit, with an emphasis on economic emancipation, equal rights for all people, distributive justice and inclusive governance.
However, the post-colonial praxis of running the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa brought a varied range of experience as regards the interface between democracy and development. Once countries started to pursue independent course and destiny, perception as regards democracy’s role in economic development underwent significant changes. Three strands are discerned in this context. A number of countries pursued classical, some would say ‘bourgeoisie’, democracy; others had set their target to pursue different variants of ‘non-capitalist way development’ by curtailing many elements of democracy in developmental practice; and still other countries that chose to pursue capitalist path of development with authoritarian forms of democracy by imposing significant constraints on democratic rights, norms and political freedom. Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea are often cited as examples of this third type of developmental direction. The experience of these countries are important to keep in mind since in the current discourse on the interrelationship between democracy and development in Bangladesh, it is the experiences of these countries that are often invoked as both an example to be emulated and as a ‘cost’ to be sacrificed in going forward. Taking cue from this logic of reasoning, some are trying to argue that at the moment the imperative of economic development is more important than the urgency of political democracy and that democracy can as well wait for some time, and, in between, economic development should be given a good foundation to be then carried forward under greater democratic dispensation in some future time. For Bangladesh at this present juncture, the interface between democracy and development is thus just not a theoretical discourse, but one that has high relevance and significance.
Although, unlike in pure science, in social sciences it is often not possible to show the consequences of the counterfactual, there are a number of reasons why such a reasoning is not tenable. There are a number of flaws in this argumentation. If one takes the case of Bangladesh, the significant achievements of its track record in terms of economic and social indicators have been achieved mainly since the 1990s, with the advent of democratic governance and multi-party democracy that followed the decade-long autocratic rule of the 1980s, aptly dubbed as the ‘decade of stagnation’. Both the Awami League and the BNP were united in this struggle towards democratic transition. Bangladesh can take genuine pride in the achievements in the socio-economic spheres since the 1990s, with periodic acceleration in the GDP growth, significant and positive structural changes in the economy, export-orientation, food self-sufficiency, and with one of the best records among the least developed countries in terms of attaining the key MDGs. On the other hand, in countries where democracy was juxtaposed to economic development, citing tradeoffs in a zero-sum context, social tensions had often accentuated to the point where change towards democratic governance became an overwhelming demand of the people, and the cause for political transition to democratic transformation was often advanced only with considerable violence and great sacrifice on the part of the people.
One could argue about January 2014 elections, from different perspectives — whether the incumbent Awami League government should have done more to ensure broad-based, multi-party participated elections or whether the main opposition should have participated under the then prevalent conditions and take it from there. However, the lesson from this experience should not be to argue that we could or should do with less democracy and more development and going forward, that there is no need to invest in taking steps to strengthen democracy or initiate dialogues with the democratic opposition and thereby create a conducive environment for multi-party democracy and free and fair elections. On the contrary, one could argue that there is ‘cost’ involved in pursuing this line of logic and this could as well undermine the very efforts to advance economic development itself.
A meaningful democracy cannot be possible without people’s participation and in a democracy, a core element of this participation is free and fair election. True that the exercise of universal suffrage, on one particular day, will not in any way guarantee participatory democracy or ensure a faster pace of development. But this is a precondition which will then need to be consolidated through the strengthening of institutions of governance and by raising the efficacy of developmental practice.
A weak state of democracy eventually leads to the weakening of checks and balances between the legislative, the judiciary and the executive branch of the state, creating a fertile environment for lack of transparency, and accountability, bad governance and widespread corruption. Within such an environment, even if energetic steps by the state are taken to accelerate development, negative externalities will likely undermine the efforts of the government, reduce effectiveness of the measures taken and decrease returns from the investments made. As the Bangladesh experience shows, in spite of the rise in the share of the public-sector investment in the GDP thanks to the government’s higher allocation of resource, the much-expected crowd-in impact in terms of higher investment of the private sector, which is the dominant player in the Bangladesh investment scenario, continues to remain limited in part originating from uncertainty and apprehensions about the recurrence of political violence. One recalls the violence during January–March period perpetrated by the opposition and its severe detrimental impact on the economy and its performance in domestic and global arenas. Although, thankfully, the economy is past this period, uncertainties on part of the private sector, entrepreneurs and business have persisted. This is reflected in the large capital flight, transfer of significant resources through trade-mispricing and increasing balances of Bangladeshi nationals in Swiss banks. This is reflected in investment not picking up in any significant way, the investment figures which ought to be much higher than the current 28 per cent equivalent of the GDP.
The other issue of concern is related to ensuring that there is good value for the money spent by the government. Yes, we do need high investment in infrastructure, transport, energy and other physical infrastructure, as also in health and education. However, to ensure the expected returns on investment, it is an imperative that these significant investments are done in a cost-effective manner, in an environment of good governance, transparency and a zero-tolerance for rent-seeking and corruption, and if and when corruption and rent-seeking do take place, to ensure that oversight institutions are able to take appropriate measures to address those. Without participatory democracy and without appropriate debate and discussion in the parliament, there is hardly any safeguard against these oft-experienced trends and on the ground realities. Corruption is a burden on development and the resultant cost escalation raises the cost of development, thus undermining the prospect of future and further development. This vicious cycle is all the more relevant and of high significance at a time when Bangladesh will need to invest heavily if it is to accelerate its pace of development as anticipated in its plan documents, and if it is to take advantage of regional and global integration from a position of strength. Commitment to democracy is also necessary for creating a supportive and conducive environment for economic development and to transmit the right signals to the investors and economic agents.
Lack of participatory democracy also creates a conducive environment for forces of fundamental and religious extremism to propagate ideas and mobilise support for their partisan cause, to take advantage of the existing democratic deficit and to occupy up the void and gaps in the democratic space. If these forces are to be denied and deprived of their breeding grounds and political clout, it is essential that all potential forces of democracy remain united. Efforts are needed to build such alliances so that democratic forces, albeit with allegiance to a diverse range of political ideas and ideologies, are able to project a united front against extremism and extremist forces.
In any functional democracy, civil society has a very strong and positive role to play, by remaining constructively engaged, through a critical examination of government policies and by exercising vigilance to safeguard the interest of people, and giving voice to the marginalised sections of the poor. When democracy is juxtaposed to development, this also invariably leads to a shrinking space for civil society. This is because there is then also a logic to think that the dissenting voice of civil society undermines the cause of development.
In an environment where the government will be deprived of the benefit of the critical perspectives of the opposition and constructive engagement of civil society, there will a high possibility that a sense of over-confidence and complacence would set in. In such an environment, two things are likely to happen: the politicisation of institutions of governance, with resultant intensification of rent-seeking behaviour, and self-censorship on part of those who could contribute by voicing different, critical and constructive perspectives.
The upshot of the above is that pursuing the cause of strengthening inclusive democracy must be seen as an essential prerequisite and integral practice if Bangladesh is to accelerate its pace of development and realise the formidable potential opportunities during the window of opportunity she has over the next couple of decades. Those who try to justify by telling that there is a trade-off between democracy and development may end up with neither. This is a prospect which the country and the people of Bangladesh could ill afford.

Mustafizur Rahman is an economist

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