No Dictators for Democracy
The U.S. State Department this month reported that the Honduran government is taking adequate measures to address congressional concerns about human rights. This approval on Honduras’ Human Rights record paved the way for continued flow of aid, in this case military aid, which had been requested by the Obama administration.
The approval, however, also raises the question of whether ‘strong governments”, to use a euphemism, are necessary to institutionalise democracy in underdeveloped countries. The present administration of President Porfirio Lobo was installed after a June 2009 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya. The US was one of the few countries that accepted the result of a November election returning Lobo to power. Since then, the security forces have been implicated in the wave of violence unleashed against the opposition, journalists and other opponents after the coup. Hundreds have been killed. Yet last October, Mr. Obama praised Mr. Lobo at the White House for leadership in a “restoration of democratic practices.”
Back in March, ninety-four members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her “to suspend US assistance to the Honduran military and police given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces”.
These concerns, shared also by the Senate, have now been sidestepped. While in the specific case of Honduras, concerns about drug trafficking may play a part in the US administration’s thinking, the latter also reflects a long held policy of several administrations.
Underlying this policy, shared by many financial institutions, is a belief about how democracy relates to development: poor countries need to delay democracy until they develop. This used to be the “Scandinavian” view of democracy; that only Scandinavian countries were capable of being democratic, and that you needed to have a solid middle class before you could contemplate democracy. The argument went—as presented in the writings of Samuel Huntington and Seymour Martin Lipset —that if a poor country became democratic, because of the pressures in a democracy to respond to the interests of the people, they would borrow too much and spend the money in ways that did not advance development.
These poor decisions would mean that development would not occur; and because people would then be disappointed, they would return to a dictatorship.
Therefore, the prescription was, get yourself, or have installed, a benign dictator. It was never quite explained how you would make sure you had a dictator that spent the money to develop the country rather than ship it off to a Swiss bank account. The people should wait until development is produced, which then produces a middle class. Then, inevitably, the middle class will demand freedom, and –voila! – you will have a democratic government. But empirical evidence does not support this thesis. In the last forty-five years of actual performance, there is no evidence that poor authoritarian countries have grown any more rapidly than poor democracies.
If East Asia is left out (and they possess some unique features) poor democracies have grown 50 percent more rapidly, on average, during this period. The Baltic countries, Botswana, Costa Rica, Ghana, and Senegal have grown more rapidly than the Angolas, the Syrias, the Uzbekistans, and the Zimbabwes of the world. Social dimensions of development are even more starkly divergent. For example, in terms of life expectancy, poor democracies typically enjoy life expectancies that are nine years longer than poor autocracies. Opportunities of finishing secondary school are 40 percent higher. Infant mortality rates are 25 percent lower. Agricultural yields are about 25 percent higher, on average, in poor democracies than in poor autocracies—an important fact, given that 70 percent of the population in poor countries is often rural-based.
While there are many reasons for these results, one particularly prominent characteristic is that democracies do a far better job at avoiding catastrophes of all types – financial, humanitarian, economic etc. The lesson for Guyana, if not for the US, is to avoid even the ‘benign’ dictator.