Studies Show: People Want Democracy to Deliver the Goods

Does the average person consider governance when they think about the things that affect their everyday lives? In a new Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper that assesses views on governance based on survey data from around the world, we find that they do. But governance has many aspects, and there are some that are more ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Does the average person consider governance when they think about the things that affect their everyday lives? In a new Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper that assesses views on governance based on survey data from around the world, we find that they do. But governance has many aspects, and there are some that are more important to people than others.

In general, people seem to be concerned first and foremost about state performance and the ability of governments to deliver on key needs and expectations in areas including economic management, growth stimulation, job creation, health, education, or a more equitable distribution of goods and services. Corruption is a central part of this story, since it has such a big impact on people’s satisfaction with their governments and their perceptions of its performance overall.

Other governance dimensions, especially those associated with political freedoms, are also important, but they remain decidedly secondary concerns. Perceptions of governance are quite instrumental: people tend to value political freedoms and democracy mostly in relation to how democracies perform and whether they successfully provide the expected goods and services. This can place democracy under considerable strain, especially in countries across the developing world where the ability of governments to respond to citizen needs remains weak. The question of how these democracies can be more effectively supported so that they can improve the wellbeing of their populations is therefore crucial, with important implications for a future international development consensus to succeed the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.

Our findings on governance perceptions draw on emerging results from My World, an innovative global U.N. survey on people’s priorities for the future, which has gathered over 1.4 million votes from people in as many as 194 countries. The survey asks respondents to select their top six out of 16 possible development priorities for the future that would make the most difference to them and their families.

Of these options, most respondents prioritized “an honest and responsive government,” which ranks only behind such central concerns as education, health, and jobs. Other governance-related options lag considerably behind, particularly “political freedoms,” which ranked fourth to last:

Admittedly My World only provides a snapshot of what people care about, and doesn’t reveal much about why they vote the way that they do. So we compared the My World vote results with more detailed regional Barometer surveys that cover larger samples of polling data from countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. This revealed a strikingly similar picture across surveys on what dimensions of governance people value more, and important insights can be drawn from those results.

People are concerned above all about the ability of their governments to “deliver the goods,” namely in relation to economic development, employment, and essential public services such as health, education, and water and sanitation. According to these Barometer surveys (and very much consistent with the My World vote rankings) the number of people pointing to economic concerns and the provision of services as the main challenge that their governments should address is much higher than concerns about democracy and rights.

The regional surveys show that people do also care about democracy: when asked in the abstract which form of government they prefer, an overwhelming majority of people across countries and income groups choose democracy (and, implicitly, political freedoms). Yet very often their appreciation of democracy is linked to how democratic systems perform (which brings us back to the goods they deliver). Here, overall, assessments are much less positive.

As the growing number of popular protests and uprisings around the world indicates, there is profound dissatisfaction across the board with the ability of democracies to deliver tangible benefits and to improve the wellbeing of ordinary citizens. People are clearly clamoring for greater democratic rights and increased representation. But more fundamentally, this popular mobilization is also an expression of a profound revulsion with leaders and political systems perceived to be deeply corrupt and unwilling or unable to address the everyday needs of citizens. (In the photo above, an Egyptian boy holds up a piece of bread during protests, referencing the Arab Spring slogan: “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice!”)

As a recent essay in the Economist argues, even established Western democracies have not been spared. Disillusionment with the workings of democracy in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere has become rife. In particular, inequality has deepened over the past few decades (in the United States, for instance, the share of national income going to the richest 1 percent of the population has risen from 8 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2012), and there is a widespread sense that these democratic systems have become increasingly biased towards the rich and powerful, and are unable to provide for the population at large. Popular disenchantment has become even more pronounced in the context of the financial crisis and austerity programs. As the rise of the “Occupy” movement and its slogan (“We are the 99 percent“) shows, people are deeply frustrated with the inability of democracy to provide goods, as well as the perceived social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and corruption that have come to characterize it.

People consistently rank parliaments and political parties as the institutions they trust the least, while the military earns the highest measure of public confidence. Even where people feel that they are able to express their “political voice” (through elections for instance, or the freedom to say what they think), they don’t believe that their voice is being heard and can make a difference on how their governments work. This reinforces feelings of frustration at a widely perceived lack of government responsiveness and accountability, and is a particularly worrisome trend among young people.

So what does this all mean?

The preference for effective government has important implications for state legitimacy. Clearly the question of legitimacy is multifaceted and complex, and historically, states have relied on a combination of sources and methods to build public trust. But these survey findings suggest that performance-based legitimacy is particularly important.

The vast majority of countries today are formal democracies. People still seem to expect that such systems are inherently better at providing public goods, even though this isn’t necessarily the case. This puts democracy under considerable pressure. The most urgent challenge of the 21st century, therefore, may well be to strengthen democracies around the world so that they can respond to the demands of their populations more effectively. If they fail to do so, democratic institutions run the risk of becoming increasingly hollow and perfunctory, at least in the eyes of the public.

Our findings also have important implications for emerging global development goals set to take shape after the MDGs expire in 2015. As has been amply discussed, institutional structures and dynamics are essential in shaping development outcomes and in explaining differences in progress between countries. For example, Nepal has made significant progress in improving maternal health care by devolving decision-making to local bodies, as well as by strengthening oversight and accountability among government, service providers, and local communities. Conversely, lack of policy coherence and weak accountability mechanisms to track performance have contributed to an under-provision of maternal health services in Malawi, Uganda, and Niger.

A key weakness of the MDG framework was its neglect of the crucial nature of governance. Including it as a stand-alone goal would signal its centrality to development outcomes, as the High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda has recommended. But as our assessment here highlights, it is also essential to understand governance above all as a government’s ability to deliver tangible goods and benefits that make a difference to people’s everyday lives. Governance must also be addressed as an objective that cuts across areas such as health, education, and the management of water and other natural resources.

Translating these ideas into consensus on a new development framework will not be easy. Doing so requires a significant change in the way we think about development, as well as in the current strategies to promote governance in the post-2015 framework. We will need to move away from normative conceptions of change and toward more practical approaches grounded in contextual realities. But this shift will be essential for the next set of development goals to have substance, and to fill the gaps that matter most to people.

Alina Rocha Menocal is a research fellow in the Politics and Governance program at ODI. Gina Bergh and Laura Rodríguez Takeuchi are both research officers in the Growth, Poverty, and Inequality program at ODI.

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