The real importance of democracy*

Friday, April 30, 2010
By Cássio Aoqui

In our readings for this course, we usually see that the authors consider democracy an advantage or even an essential aspect in the process of achieving development and human rights.

Sen (pp. 43), for example, exemplifies his reflections in a chapter saying that “there are real handicaps that China experiences compared with India because it lacks democratic freedoms”.

According to Pogge (pp. 68), commitment by the citizenry in order to make the object of a right truly secure tends to foster commitment by the government –especially in democratic societies which tend to produce the strongest incentives for government officials to be responsive to the people.

Uvin (pp. 125) presents the UN secretary-general’s 1994 Agenda for development, in which it’s stated that “democracy and development are linked in fundamental ways. (…) Because democracy provides the only long-term basis for managing competing ethnic, religious and cultural interests in a way that minimizes the risk of violent internal conflict. (…) Because democracy is a fundamental human right, the advancement of which is itself an important measure of development”.

I’m definitely sure that democracy is a fundamental way to reassure some freedoms and never doubted its importance to the economic development of societies. As a journalist, indeed, I could not think of any other efficient kind of government in a long term process of development.

However, I’m not really sure how we can relate development (and therefore freedoms, in Sen’s point of view) and even human rights (generally speaking) to democracy. I actually don’t see strong arguments in these authors to conclude that “developing and strengthening a democratic system is an essential component of the process of development”, just as Sen points out in his book.

First of all, the same author states correctly that “the real issues that have to be addressed (…) involve taking note of extensive interconnections between political freedoms and the understanding and fulfillment of economic needs” (Sen, pp. 147). I agree with the fact that, unquestionably, these extensive interconnections do exist and that democracy can be a useful tool and even and important variable in the process of achieving some development (in terms of enterprises) and human rights (mostly CP rights).

But they are just as important as all the other infinite interconnections that take place either more or less than democracy in a complex society like the one we live and build nowadays. Among them, we can mention religion affairs, some historic issues like the way each country was colonized (was it a colony of exploitation, like African and Latin-American ones, or of settlement, like the United States?) or created, in case of post-war nations (like African and Eastern or Central Europe artificial countries), existence of different human and natural resources, geography, size of the territory or the population etc.

Even aware of the importance of democracy to development, I can’t, however, see it as “an essential component of the process of development” instead of considering it another (but important, I emphasize) variable, unless we consider all the other factors just as so (and the authors mentioned before don’t seem to include them in this “essential check-list”).

I also believe the discussion about “what should come first –removing poverty and misery or guaranteeing political liberty and civil rights, for which poor people have little use” (Sen, pp. 147) is misplaced. Sen is right when he states that there should be no conflict between them both. But it does not prove (nor all the arguments he uses in the next subchapters) that democracy is a cause or indispensable condition so that development can be reached.

Saying that “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government” (Sen, pp. 152) doesn’t prove anything either and can be one of the syllogisms he himself refutes in his texts. There can be other non-democratic countries that never faced famine as well. And if, in an imaginary situation, we find out that all non-democratic countries have reached a certain scale of GDP’s growth last year, could we say that now authoritative governments are essential to development or, worse, human rights, as well?

That said, in my opinion, what should start being observed a little more and academically or scientifically studied by specialists in development and civil rights is the way people live in their microcosmos everyday lives. We are all too focused at institutional issues and microeconomics, for they are definitely much easier to be analyzed. But what is the real goal of development and human rights rather than offering well-being, dignity and, like Sen’s words, “freedom”, to all humankind?

Three years ago, in Syria, considered by US ex-president George W. Bush part of the “axis of the evil”, ruled by a long-term dictator who also interferes politically in its neighbors, especially in Lebanon, I was observing and talking a lot to local people both in Damascus and in Aleppo (allegedly the oldest city inhabited today). They really seemed to have more freedoms that we might have here in Brazil, a democratic but not a “developed” country. They were not afraid of violence at all –actually living a peaceful daily routine– and well-educated, healthy and well-nourished, despite the “poverty” considering the standard international statistics we use to measure the wealthy of a country.

In Cuba, in 2009, I had the chance to talk to many locals, most of them really well educated, and realized that, as soon as democracy arrives there (and, as an extension, capitalism as well), violence –something they still don’t face at all nowadays- will come together with all the desire for consumption they already have.

It must be clear I’m not defending both Cuban and Syrian political system. On the contrary, I consider them unacceptable in most aspects. But when we regard really close, we see what is obvious: any system has some advantages and some disadvantages regarding development and civil rights (sometimes many disadvantages, for example, when we confront authoritative governments and CP rights). That’s why in my regard democracy can’t be considered an essential condition or requisite to development. At least until someone can show me really good arguments for it.

*This article was based on a previous minute paper in which I had started a reflection about the themes explored above

© 2010, Cássio Aoqui. All rights reserved.

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