By Getachew Mequanent
Politics is about the exercise of power. Political and state elites use that power to make and enforce decisions. The role of democracy – or “good governance” - is then to create the structures and processes that allow citizens to get involved in making and enforcing decisions.
The issue has been that democratization efforts worldwide have encountered problems. The Journal of Democracy (October 2008), which is published by the Washington-based conservative think tank National Endowment for Democracy, found that, of the 123 non-Western democracies that existed in the period between 1960 and 2004, only 67 (50%) had survived by the end of 2004. This Journal says that democracy has done little to improve peoples’ lives, mainly because it has allowed political power to rotate among networks of self-centered ruling elites. Unmet societal needs would create situations that sustain vicious cycles of poverty, political violence and backsliding to authoritarianism.
Another paper published by the French Development Agency (January 2009), entitled Is “Good Governance” a Good Development Strategy?, argues that there is no evidence of correlation between good governance (as understood in the context of liberal democracy) and economic growth. It says that the universal prescription of good governance to developing countries was and is wrong. Instead, the state should have been called to play a major role in development, such as by imposing discipline in public administration, planning and executing public investments, distributing economic opportunities equally, instituting and enforcing state laws, punishing corruption and so on.
A colleague of mine had lived in Asia in the early 1990s and observed many countries undergoing change. He gave me an example of the Nepalese who were fighting over democracy and Vietnamese who were focused on economic growth. Today Nepal has opened up a democratic space to the extent that a former Moist guerrilla group has won a competitive national election and formed a majority government. Yet, Nepal has not progressed on the economic front. In contrast, Vietnam remains a totalitarian state, but the country has achieved social and economic development goals, the first developing country destined to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals.
Experiences like these have forced the reexamination of both the theoretical and practical notions of democracy and democracy promotion strategies. Gone are the days when Western conservative and liberal think tanks confidently arguing how market economy and democracy helped to drive social, economic and political development in the Western countries and why the same thing could not be achieved in developing countries. In fact, those experienced institutions like the World Bank have increasingly argued that, when talking about democracy promotion, context matters. For example, as the Journal of Democracy shows, the notion that democracy flourishes in high-income countries and not in low-income countries does not appear to make good sense. Evidence suggests that democracy could survive in poor countries and backslides (to authoritarianism) in high-income countries, as in Russia, Venezuela, Thailand or Georgia. The French Development Agency publication mentioned above argues that the most successful economies were supported by elites that had strategic visions and determination to seek home-grown solutions. For example, South Korea provided industrial subsidies and loans on condition that firms demonstrate profitability and global competitiveness. China provided cash bonuses for local communist officials if village and township enterprises produce high quality products and generated profits. These were unusual measures that would have been highly objectionable by the World Bank, IMF and other agencies, but they have worked.
The trick for Ethiopian and other developing country leaders is to avoid being bogged down by ideological rightness – context matters. In this era of easy accesses to knowledge and experiences, Ethiopian leaders from every political spectrum should have opportunities to take up the institutional features of successful democratic states around the world and adopt them to Ethiopian contexts. The emergence of UEDP-Medhin as an open and a self-critical opposition party is in itself an indication of progress in the country’s political development. Time (2010 election) will tell if UEDP-Medhin gains a momentum (by winning more parliamentary seats) or suffers from a collective backlash as a result of the failure of opposition parties to demonstrated disciplined and unified leadership and articulate new policy ideas. There is also a need to overcome the political culture of yesteryears and defend the Ethiopian political arena from the influence of intellectual and political elites of the old regimes which has undermined the potential of progressive forces in the opposition camp.