Friday, October 2, 2009

Pursue democracy for its own merits

High economic growth generated by certain autocratic models may seem appealing, but they are not necessarily the right way to go

The debate over which should be chosen first - economic development or democracy - is a perennial one. Should the autocratic models of Singapore, pre-democratic South Korea or China be lauded over, say India, which is supposedly the world's largest democracy?

Books have been written about the subject, with the latest one coming from American journalist Michael Schuman entitled: "The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth". The book, published by Harper Business, concludes that the sacrifice of democracy for economic growth in countries like South Korea was worth it and quite necessary.

The problem with "directly" linking democracy to economic growth is that often times the path towards national economic development is far too complex to be attributed to democracy or the lack of it alone.

Benign dictatorships, like in Singapore, or even China, which is certainly less benign, are the poster children for the model of economic development first and democracy later or even never.

But successful economic development depends on many other domestic and global factors as well - say, the state of the world economy, the work ethics of a particular society, how much some societies save, geo-political factors among others.
Back in 2004, academics Joseph T Siegle, Michael M Weinstein and Morton H Halperin, in an article in the Foreign Affairs journal on a similar topic, argued: "We reject a 'development first, democracy later' approach because experience shows that democracy often flourishes in poor countries."

The thing is, in some developing countries, people have the wrong perception that "democracy equals high levels of economic growth", and are often frustrated when the nascent state of democratic development in their societies do not deliver quick enough material results.

On the other hand, without the bare minimum level of development where problems of abject poverty, illiteracy and class if not caste system are alleviated - still persisting in some parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America - it would be difficult to imagine how democracy can take firm roots. This should not be used as an excuse to run countries in an autocratic fashion first, however.

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