Does Democracy Have a Role to Play in Development?


In 2000, the UN adopted the Millennium Development Goals, representing the milestones that the organization hoped to achieve throughout the world by the year 2015. The aims of these goals ranged from ending starvation, to ending major civil wars and reducing violence against women and minority groups — basically, they were designed to promote stability in the developing world. The issues with the Millennium Goals are not that they are too unrealistic but that the methods for achieving them are based in Western policies and not practical methods of political and economic growth. 

Peter Evans, although not the first to explore the idea, did a wonderful job categorizing the pitfalls of the one-size-fits-all approach to development and helped coin the term, “monocropping” to describe when a donor state or NGO establishes a uniform plan to develop a nation. Evans points to this idea and its practical use as the basis for resounding failure in developing countries. He goes on to state that in order to effectively develop a nation, tailor-fit plans need to be put in to place for each individual state. Certainly the Millennium Goals seek to do that by pragmatically looking at each nation's unique situation. This can run the gamut from restocking and reassessing fisheries in coastal nations, to building aqueducts in less arable regions. However, even these specific cures for country-specific pandemics are still susceptible to failure because at the root of the Millennium Goals lie monocropping characteristics. 

The Millennium Goals are based in the idea that in order for a state to be successful, it must be democratic and capitalist. The evidence for this idea is well rooted in the history of Western states, which comprise most of the donors providing aid or supplementing the NGOs in developing regions. Despite overwhelming aid and the overwhelming implementation of democracy in developing states, there is also an overwhelming amount of system failure. If we look at Arend Lijphart’s  book Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, he explains that in divided societies, majority rule must be avoided. The intuitive reasons abound, ranging from ethnic groups and minority groups being underrepresented to even secessionist movements springing up. The author however backs up these claims by asserting through case studies the times in which majority rule has failed due to the classification of states as divided. The overwhelming empirical evidence of state failure in Africa, for example, and the tendency of Arab states to continue with undemocratic rule sheds some interesting light on the idea that perhaps democracy is not best, or rather not best at first.

This is what capitalist democracies forget when implementing state building polices — they forget their own history. Capitalism gave birth to democracy out of the feudal era of landed aristocracy and monarchies, when property owners began to use their property to gain admittance to law making processes.  The seminal work by Barrington Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, outlines the sufficient conditions for transition from feudalism to either fascism, socialism, or democracy, or as he coins it, the three types of modernity.  However, in states like Somalia and the Congo which have not had stable enough governance for decades, democracy cannot be effective — especially when the societies are not homogeneous. The logical conclusion is that heterogeneity and majority rule do not mix. 

And therein lies the main point: Maybe democracy isn’t a cure-all.  Perhaps allowing for the natural transition through other means is more effective so long as the end result is stability and democracy down the road. Although the Millennium Goals are not a resounding failure, they could stand to be a more resounding success if the politics behind their noble causes were based on history, not present desires. Hopefully the democracies of the world can remember their own past moving in to the future.