Development Shouldn’t Give Democracy the Cold Shoulder

Why it’s time to include democracy in global development goals.


On May 30, 2013, a group of experts will present recommendations to the U.N. Secretary-General on the post-2015 development agenda. The meeting is being called to decide on what happens to global development after the deadline passes for the heavily-touted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). One of the buzz phrases that have emerged from the High-Level Panel is "people-centered" development. But will the panel take its own jargon seriously and listen to the call from people around the world for honest and responsive government?

One of the strongest global trends today is the empowerment of citizens and their desire for dignity and freedom. As governments prepare for what should replace the MDGs, they should take this into account. But don’t hold your breath. Two recent surveys conducted by the United Nations to inform the discussion of the post-2015 agenda provide a striking demonstration of the widening gap between citizens and their governments.

One of these is the U.N.-sponsored online survey known as Myworld. So far more than half a million citizens in 194 countries have voted in the survey, and the results show that "honest and responsive government" consistently ranks among the top three developmental priorities cited by respondents as desirable for their own countries. In the other survey undertaken among U.N. member state governments by the U.N. Secretary-General for the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development, "good governance" ranks bizarrely as only 25th out of 32 priorities listed. The disparity between the surveys’ initial results are illustrative of a wider trend where citizens see democratic governance as a major priority, while governments don’t.

Keeping this in mind, there three are three main reasons why the High-Level Panel report should make sure that it includes democracy in its recommendations for the new development framework:

First, nothing matters more for development than national politics. As pointed out by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, anyone who doubts the importance of national institutions and national policies need only look at the history of the two Koreas, which had the same economic starting point seven decades ago. Today, South Korea has a booming economy, high levels of education, and a life expectancy of 79 years, according to the World Health Organization. In North Korea, life expectancy is 64 years and the economy has stagnated under dictatorship. Open, democratic, and competitive politics with institutions that place constraints on power are far more likely to uphold the rule of law, protect property rights, and provide an inclusive market economy that limits corruption and provides opportunity for all.

Second, this critical importance of national politics is only enhanced by the fact that trade, investment, and remittances are rapidly dwarfing traditional aid as vehicles for economic development. The world is waving goodbye to the old "donor-recipient" paradigm, in which the western world provides aid to support developing countries with a top-down approach regardless of local context. The demise of this outdated model should be welcomed. Much like democratic institutions, economic growth and social development can only be sustained if built from within societies, determined by choices made by citizens and the leaders they choose. Recent experience in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that democratic development cannot be imposed from outside; there is little evidence to suggest that economic development can be forced by external intervention, either. The post-2015 development agenda needs to reflect this major global shift with a focus on building sound and sustainable democratic institutions and processes.

Third, it is actually possible to translate the global call from citizens for more honest and responsive government into a specific and measurable post-2015 goal on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. There could be a common set of indicators for checking progress on the basis of respect for civil and political rights, participation, and equality. Countries could also choose from a menu of region-specific indicators based on measurements of individual country compliance with international agreements on human rights combined with citizen-based assessment (provided, as the name suggests, by citizens who measure the democratic development of their own countries).

Citizen-based assessment is already being used in several countries. For example, when the current eight Millennium Development Goals were adopted, the government of Mongolia elected to adopt a ninth one of its own, on democracy. The Mongolians developed specific indicators in order to measure progress in categories such as corruption, participation by civil society in decision-making, access to legal services, and, public sector transparency. In addition, Mongolia has commissioned regular independent citizen assessments to measure progress.

The relevance of democracy for development is also fundamental for the U.N.-led process leading to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of the main outcomes of the Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development held in Brazil last year. The aim of the SDGs is to ensure that the new global development framework will incorporate social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Strong democratic institutions and processes are essential to achieving these ends.

Even though several countries have managed to achieve economic development without much democracy, democracy is essential if such development is to prove sustainable. Democracy and development are mutually reinforcing — and that’s why the new development goals also need to be democracy goals.    

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola