Why the Debate between Development and Democracy Misses the Mark
By Hong Zhang
“When I was working in Lagos, I had to get up at 4:30 every morning to make it to work on time for five years.” A Nigerian friend recalled bitterly as he picked me up from the airport, “So don’t tell me any excuse not to make our infrastructure right.”
The notorious traffic jams in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic hub and Africa’s most populous city, haven’t changed much. During my visit to the city in June 2022, a trip that should have taken half an hour according to Google Maps, cost me two and a half hours and the locals said that I was lucky. The few motorways linking up different parts of the city could be blocked any moment by cargo-carrying trucks, which had nowhere to go but to park on the motorways waiting to clear the long queues and reach the ports located near downtown Lagos. Taxis—which were way too many due to the heavily subsidized fuel prices—were forced to make detours through unpaved streets, vying for the right of way with vendors, pedestrians, and motorcycles. Drivers yelled at those in their way. Clashes inevitably happened.
China in Africa
It was with this backdrop that China came into the conversation in Africa. Over the past two decades, China has risen to be a leading financier of infrastructure development in Africa. Chinese companies are building roads, bridges, power plants, or railways in virtually every African country (though not all of them are financed by China itself). In Nigeria, Chinese companies have been building or rehabilitating most of the major airports, railways, ports, urban light rail, etc.
For many Nigerians, the image of China is represented by the logos of the Chinese companies and banks on the construction sites of high-profile infrastructure projects (as well as the influx of cheap goods from China). In short, China has become strongly associated with infrastructure development in Africa, and it gives China a lot of relevance as many consider infrastructure improvement their priority. Of course, Chinese finance has also resulted in many White Elephant projects and has even contributed to the debt problems of many countries.
Nevertheless, China’s leaders have maintained a normative discourse centered on economic development, positioning China as a fellow developing country that better understands the pains of the others. Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, while at the same time motivated by the need to transfer out China’s industrial overcapacity, aims at creating a developmental charm offensive toward developing countries by proposing mutual benefits in co-development. More recently in 2021, Xi unveiled a new Global Development Initiative championing the UN-defined sustainable development goals partly as an attempt to remedy China’s global reputation tainted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Development Vs Democracy
As many observers are rightly concerned, China’s rise in global development has been reshaping the norms of international development assistance, promoting a vision for development and modernization that discounts democratic values. The rivalry between China and the United States also contributes to reifying the dichotomy between development and democracy given how the two concepts are central to the messages each is promoting respectively.
While such a dichotomy is analytically incorrect—as scholars have shown that rigorous democratic institutions do facilitate development and there is no guarantee that authoritarian regimes can deliver good economic performance—it remains true that there is a lot of cynicism toward democracy on the ground. My own experiences in Nigeria confirm this widely held suspicion. To be clear, such cynicism cannot constitute an indictment on democracy’s intrinsic merits; rather, it reflects the frustration with the reality of under-developed democracy in these countries that fails to address developmental needs, as well as the frustration with the insufficient attention paid to these problems specific to developing countries by the West, in their democracy-promotion discourse and competition with China. Here are a few thoughts:
A Corrupted Electoral System Provides Weak Representation for the Poor
The lack of solid democracy-guarding institutions, combined with the dearth of economic opportunities, means that in many developing countries, vote buying became a wide-spread practice in electoral mobilization. Having spent millions to be elected to office, politicians can hardly resist recouping the investment through corruption or even predatory practices toward businesses. In this context, electoral politics is seen as a rich person’s game and there is little trust that politicians will put effort into development programs that genuinely empower the poor.
While meaningful policy debates do take place among the educated elites, the majority of the population—without access to even basic education or the luxury of time to invest in public affairs—have little chance to speak for their own interests in public debates. Together these conditions don’t inspire confidence that the interests of common people are taken into serious consideration by representatives in policy deliberations.
Unfinished Nation-Building Leads to an Exclusionary Political Economy
In countries with deeply entrenched ethnic and/or religious cleavages (a legacy of colonialism due to artificially drawn borders) the identity of the ruling leader overtly influences the allocation of resources rather than through considerations of inclusive development. Far too often electoral politics becomes a struggle for economic resources among different divisions rather than about superior policy ideas or the ability to govern.
A Lack of Policy Continuity Thwarts Development
The pernicious polarization of partisan politics frequently results in outright reversals of policies when new parties or factions come to power. While this is not exclusive to developing countries—just look at how many policies of the Trump administration were annulled in the Biden administration—but in developing countries, it means long-term plans remain in limbo or even if they are made, are quickly aborted. Consequently, many urgent developmental needs are simply ignored.
Electoral Distractions Compound Problems of Low Administrative Capacity
Things proceed with a very different speed in many low-income countries: even the ability to use a computer is a luxury for some bureaucrats (one should not be surprised to find no computer in a government official’s office). Low administrative capacity makes the four-year electoral cycle seem awfully short. Moreover, political appointees lose precious time as they lobby to remain in office or receive promotions at the beginning and end of each administration. So, the actual time left for them to implement meaningful reforms in challenging policy areas is unfortunately limited.
Development Can Complement Democracy
None of these logically leads to an argument for authoritarianism. In fact, given the socio-economic conditions of poor countries, the chances are that a dictator would be much more dangerous, as there would be even fewer checks-and-balances to rein in corruption or predatory behaviors. Indeed, 69% of Africans still prefer democracy to any alternative form of governance, according to the latest Afrobarometer survey. Even though more (63%) think that China has a positive external influence on their countries than those who think the same about the U.S. (60%), favorable views toward China do not affect their more positive attitudes toward democracy.
My case is we must address the developmental needs of low-income countries, first of all, by acknowledging that existing weaknesses in their democratic systems can produce anti-developmental outcomes which can undermine confidence in democracy. Indeed, when people are desperate, we shouldn’t blame them for dreaming about an idealized alternative—in this case, a benevolent, transcendent, and capable authoritarian regime that can break the vested interests and push for sweeping reforms. For some China fills this role. Unfortunately, it’s a fantasy that disappoints once it becomes a reality.
Democracy advocates have called for vigilance against China’s “sharp power” in Africa and other regions. Such a defensive approach should be complemented by a more constructive program, with the commitment to improve the poor countries’ democratic governance with special regard to their developmental needs. Since economic development is the field China has been most invested in, it is necessary to demonstrate that rich democracies also care about development in low-income countries as well. Moreover, they must actively contribute to finding solutions for the intertwining challenges of weak democracy and low levels of economic development.
Hong Zhang is a China Public Policy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School. Her research focuses on China’s political economy and international development engagements.
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