Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Democracy Can Still Deliver

by Isobel Coleman
June 6, 2014

A voter waits to cast his ballot in Bekkersdal, near Johannesburg, May 7, 2014. (Mike Hutchings/Courtesy Reuters)


Democracy is going through a rough patch. Freedom House reports that the number of democracies around the world has retreated in recent years. The frightening turbulence in countries struggling to transition to democracy such as Egypt and Thailand makes clear how difficult that process is. And with economic malaise persisting in many democracies while growth still surges in autocratic China, more than a few people wonder whether it’s even worth bothering with democracy and all its political dysfunctions. Can democracies effectively meet the aspirations of citizens in today’s complex world?

I, for one, come down firmly on the side of Churchill, who famously quipped that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried. While some autocracies have managed to deliver impressive growth rates, we mustn’t forget that many more have failed miserably and deprived their citizens of the most basic human rights along the way. As we underscored in our book Pathways to Freedom last year, the experiences of democratic countries as diverse as Indonesia, Poland, and Mexico show that democracies can indeed deliver both economic growth and freedom.

A new report, “The Democratic Alternative from the South: India, Brazil, and South Africa,” echoes this view. Authored by Ann Bernstein, executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) in South Africa, the report concludes that inclusive growth is not only possible in a democracy but that democracy can offer a competitive advantage to states pursuing high-growth strategies–namely, built-in self-correction mechanisms to address bad policies and hold politicians accountable. As consolidated democracies, Brazil, India, and South Africa have established strong institutions to battle corruption and abuse of power, ensure effective democratic governance, and create more transparency. Among these institutions are Brazil’s Supreme Court, which tried several of former president Lula’s senior staff in the country’s largest corruption case, and South Africa’s office of the public prosecutor, which investigates and addresses abuse of powers and misconduct in government.

In a meeting at CFR last week to discuss the report, Bernstein noted that democracies often look messy and even politically chaotic from the outside, but they are surprisingly resilient. Autocracies, on the other hand, appear to be stable and efficient, until quite suddenly they aren’t. And their meltdown can be spectacularly painful.

The case studies of Brazil, South Africa, and India are great reminders that democracy can take root in all types of societies at different levels of development. It is not restricted to just rich countries; indeed, for these countries (and many others) democracy is the path to inclusive growth.

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