The Virtues of Modesty

Too often reformers treat progress toward democracy as if it were a matter of all or nothing. Here's a plea for the messy approach.


Lately, reality hasn’t been kind to the advocates of democracy. The early promise of the Arab spring has evaporated. The coup in Thailand has stalled efforts to expand political participation. Achieving a democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan is proving thorny. In country after country, voters have lost patience with elected leaders and parties who come to power with grand promises that gave way to a swamp of corruption.

In the exuberant early 1990s, when one dictator after another yielded to leaders selected through free and fair elections, we dared to dream that the whole world was becoming democratic. Democracy advocates and development practitioners converged in focusing on "good governance" institutions capable of supporting both political democracy and economic development. The list included competitive elections, rule of law, strong controls on corruption, efficient public bureaucracy, and independent media and open access to information. When difficulties arose, the practitioners instinctively responded by doubling down: They would set out to identify the missing pieces and insist that these, too, be fixed.

As part of a leadership team within the World Bank tasked with integrating governance into development strategy, I participated in forging the good governance consensus. But I’m now convinced that it is wrong. I’ve come to realize that it completely underestimates how much time and commitment are needed to transform a country’s institutions. As my new book argues, we need to shift our attention away from trying to achieve everything at once and focus instead on gains that can initially seem quite modest — but which, if pursued persistently, can sometimes trigger a cascading sequence of changes for the better.

As the historical experience of the United States underscores, the accumulation of many small modifications can have dramatic effects. In the 1870s, all jobs in the federal government were patronage jobs; each time a new party came to power, wholesale firings convulsed the system. But over the half-century from the 1870s to the 1920s (in what came to be known as the Progressive Era), the American public sector was profoundly transformed by the cumulative impact of many small, incremental changes. Pressure from social reformers, the rise of activist officials within the bureaucracy, and sustained, inclusive economic growth combined to far-reaching effect.

Here is what makes efforts at far-reaching institutional reform in nascent democracies so unlikely to succeed. Many emerging democracies depend for their stability on complex personal alliances and compromises. Rival factions may agree to use an election to decide who gets to govern — but beyond that they’re generally unwilling or unable to commit to formal rules for either the economic or political game. Instead, as Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Douglass North has underscored in his recent work, what really holds things together are deals on how to share the spoils of power. Sometimes insiders can be wholly predatory. But at other times, personalized arrangements can provide just enough stability to push economic development forward and to strengthen democratic institutions.

Ignoring such messy realities is likely to lead to failure. It is far more effective to focus on steps that build on things as they actually are. This altered angle of vision can have a profound impact on economic reform, the creation of new institutions, and the sustainability of democratic achievements.

Economically, an approach that goes "with the grain" offers three key lessons on how we might engage differently. First, do no harm. The experience of Bangladesh offers an excellent example of the advantages of caution. In both 2001 and 2005, Transparency International rated Bangladesh as the world’s most corrupt country. Even so, since its transition to democracy in the early 1990s, its economy has grown at a rate of 6 percent annually, while the child mortality rate has fallen by two-thirds, from 151 per thousand in 1990 to 52 per thousand by 2009. Far-reaching institutional reforms — such as high-profile campaigns against corruption — might have destabilized the (ethically ambiguous) institutional arrangements that have made these achievements possible, potentially doing more harm than good. (In the photo above, a Bangladeshi street vendor works in front of a poster of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who was placed under house arrest earlier this year ahead of a pro-democracy protest.)

Second, practitioners should focus on achieving concrete results via "islands of effectiveness" rather than on across-the-board overhauls. Political and economic elites are rarely willing to give up their special privileges in settings where they enjoy enormous power. In such situations, reformers have a better chance of doing good by nurturing zones of economic dynamism rather than endlessly (and fruitlessly) pushing for a "level playing field." Government officials and donor agencies looking to provide local infrastructure will usually have better luck by involving local communities and non-governmental organizations than by taking a top-down approach. Educational reformers will have the best chance of creating new opportunities for the next generation if they work to transform schools from the bottom up, by empowering parents, committed principals, and teachers.

Third, don’t overreach. One form of overreaching is to over-promise — suggesting, for example, that newly democratizing countries can quickly create market-supporting institutional arrangements that usually take decades to build. A similar error is to insist that all good things come by traveling the democratic path — and only along that path. The evident success of East Asian autocracies — from South Korea’s quarter-century of strong, inclusive growth under military rule to China’s historically unprecedented success in lifting close to a billion people out of poverty in just a few decades — make a powerful counter-argument to this simplistic view. Facile claims undermine rather than buttress the case for free societies and democratic paths to development.

On the institutional front, high-quality institutions are indeed crucial for long-term sustainability; they provide a set of stability-enhancing rules for channeling collective action and citizen engagement. But this has fewer implications for action than we once thought. Institutions co-evolve with a country’s economy, society, and polity; they cannot be engineered on the basis of some pre-specified blueprint. The fact that institutions tend to evolve incrementally need not be a serious problem. Continually expanding opportunity can be sufficient to keep a nascent democracy on track. But what if momentum slows? Sustaining emerging democracies can prove extremely hard when economic times get tough.

The preoccupation with good governance tends to get in the way of the hard, painstaking work of learning which institutions are crucial to democratic stability (to be prioritized accordingly) and which are less urgent. A minimum set of checks and balances must surely include credible electoral rules, openness to critical discourse, and constraints on the use of coercive executive power to settle scores with opponents. Interest groups that don’t enjoy direct access to power will only be willing to channel disaffection into peaceful opposition — staying politically active and refraining from destabilizing violence — if they can be confident that their life, liberty, and property are not vulnerable to the arbitrary exercise of state power. Conversely, insiders will only have an incentive to exercise restraint if they know that elections are credibly competitive, and that one day they could find themselves on the receiving end of the exercise of power.

But even over the long-term perspective, strong institutions are not enough to ensure democratic sustainability. As rule-of-law reformers have come to recognize, a country’s democracy is only as strong as the commitment of its people to an open, democratic order. And where does this commitment come from? From an inspiring vision.

As Americans know all too well, the journey of building a democratic society of which we can all feel proud never really ends. Always and everywhere, there are gaps between democracy’s promise and its inevitably imperfect reality. If — as the good governance agenda would have it — the only available actions and outcomes are all or nothing, efforts at change will almost certainly fall short, leading to disillusion and despair. High-minded, unachievable promises, backed up by illusions of technocratic quick fixes, may feel good in the near term, but their aftertaste is bitter. At its core, what democracy offers — and what authoritarian alternatives do not — is an invitation to citizens to embark on a noble and challenging journey, one that offers them a chance to shape their own lives and to participate peacefully in the shaping of their societies, according to their distinctive visions of freedom and justice. This invitation, not empty guarantees of success, is the heart of the democratic idea — its inspiration, its source of sustainability.

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