Democracy First or State Building First


Democracy is a political system that allows for organizing periodic elections to choose the type of government that formulates and executes policies. A state directs and coordinates the functions of various institutions that plan and deliver public good and services to society. Ideally, democracy and state can develop simultaneously, but there are no historical precedents, making practical consideration difficult. For instance, democracy in Europe developed centuries after the emergence of well-organized and well-functioning states.


The question of whether democracy or state building comes first is not about semantics. It is a central issue in the discourse of development. In their article which appeared in the November 2014 issue of Journal of Democratization, Sebastian Mazzuca and Gerardo Munck show that there are those who argue that democracy should precede state building; those who argue that strong state is a precondition for democracy; and, of course, the notion that democracy and state building positively influence each other. Ultimately, societal conditions (history, economy, culture, polity, etc.) and the international environment itself determine whether democracy promotion or state building is more important. Yet experiences of our time would show that most of the successful economies in the world have been led by effective states that ensured good economic planning and governance.


Way back in the 1960s, scholars like the late Samuel Huntington cautioned against placing unrealistic expectations on democracy as the newly created post-colonial states had no adequate capacity to accommodate popular demands generated by democracy itself like political participation, access to public services and wealth redistribution. The argument to advance democracy got momentum following the end of the Cold War and the start of the “third wave” of democratization in the 1990s, when it became considered as the solution to almost all problems in society. It was thought that political participation, social justice, peaceful conflict resolution and other outcomes of democracy would reinforce each other to create a stable political order, social cohesion and a conducive environment for economic growth.


In reality, democracy for most part resulted (through elections) in political and economic power changing hands among elites, while doing little to improve the lives of the poor masses. One can look at recent experiences of some countries to emphasize this point. Tunisia was hailed as a success story of the Arab-Spring and proof that democracy works. Today this country struggles to maintain political order as the democratically elected government has failed to address the socio-economic issues that gave rise for the 2010 mass uprising (later dubbed as Arab Spring) in the first place. Other countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Libya, South Sudan, Ukraine, and Egypt have descended into more anarchy and chaos in post-election periods. Meanwhile, such trends continue to generate a heated debate, with the folks at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) on the lead. In the January 2015 issue of Journal of Democracy (published by NED), Marc Plattner wrote that the lack of enthusiasm about democracy across the globe is “the dimension that the evidence, or at least the widespread perception, of [democracy] decline is most striking”. The editorial for the April 2015 issue of the same Journal blamed Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia along with China for leading the ‘world movement against democracy”, even though the challenges of democracy are internal to nearly all countries. 


The state building first argument – well established in a strong intellectual tradition – contends that democratization without a strong state is not possible. For example, a state that does not enforce equal rights is not a democratic state. Also, democracy cannot flourish unless supported by a strong bureaucracy that is able to manage its various functions (as Francis Fukuyama argues).  The July 2015 issue of Journal of Democracy reviewed an interesting work by Benjamin Reilly (2014) on development and governance as practices by countries in East Asia. What has been common among the countries in this region (the reviewer wrote) is “strong states that focus on delivery (of economic growth, political stability, public order, efficient services, and the like) while emphasizing that public goods take precedence over more particular interests”. Another study by Yun-han Chi and Bridget Welsh in East Asia (April 2015 issue of same Journal) shows that, although young people in this region are well-educated and well-informed, they have little interest in Arab-Spring like street protests. The legitimacy of national governments is “tied to their [youth] satisfaction with the output of the political system, and their expectations of quality governance”.  In short, this side of the argument is that strong states that deliver public goods and services are way much preferred than fragile democracies that do little more than preach about utopian societies.


Sometime ago, I was chatting with my Kenyan host about land issues. I said I was not allowed to own land in Ethiopia or for that matter only farmers and agro-industrialists were allowed to own land in the country. The Kenyan replied, “we are free [people]”, meaning that everyone in Kenya has a right to own land. But this freedom has allowed civil servants, business people, police and army chiefs, politicians and other powerful classes in society to control the land in Kenya. Destitute Kenyans who live in urban slums or farmers in the countryside may want to support a political party that champions land reform issues. But this can be very unlikely given that political elites themselves are land owners. Such a case clearly demonstrates that democracy cannot address the need of the poor masses unless it is supported by an effective state that embraces pro-poor ideology.


The Kemants (who constitute a very small ethnic group) in Gondar wanted administrative autonomy. The Amhara Region elites bitterly opposed this demand. The issue ended up at the House of Federation which ruled in favour of Kemants. Other than a few allegations of harassment and intimidation by ANDM local officials, the Kemant issue is being resolved peacefully. The Kemant experience thus demonstrates how state capacity and democracy positively influence each other. The strong Ethiopian federal state exercises power to ensure respect for constitutional rights, whereas democratic norms and values embodied in the political system provide the framework for articulating and negotiating those rights. It is unfortunate that Ethiopia does not get much credit for such positive developments, in large part because democracy is for the most part equated with the transfer of political power from one elite group to another. The Washington Post editorial compared democracy in Nigeria and Ethiopia, praising the former for concluding a successful national election that resulted in the installation of a new president. Yet Nigeria remains one of the classical examples of poor governance, and, despite being a major oil producer, it is one of the countries in the world with the largest number of poor people. In contrast, Ethiopia’s experience is increasingly becoming an example of a successful state-led development process in the 21st century, replacing the East Asian model of the 20th century which now seems outdated and is becoming more and more forgotten. Ethiopia has also continued to move forward with developing a culture of democracy at its own pace. The 2015 election actually showed efforts by both the ruling and opposition parties to engage in constructive debates on different areas of public policy, although the latter failed to win parliamentary seats.


Getachew Mequanent

Ottawa, Canada

September, 2015

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