Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Relationship between democracy and human development addressed at UNDP roundtable

On Tuesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) held a roundtable discussion on the relationship between democratic governance and socioeconomic development. Several development specialists were on hand to comment on an upcoming UNDP report on the subject.

Pippa Norris, Director of UNDP’s Democratic Governance Group, discussed the findings of the upcoming report. According to Norris, the link between democracy and social and economic development is a conditional one; dependent on both the ability of the poor to effectively voice their demands and the government’s capacity to supply adequate resources to meet those demands. If these two conditions are met, socioeconomic progress is expected and can be measured by indicators in line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals such as poverty reduction, greater respect for human and women’s rights, and improved education.

After addressing the findings of the UNDP study with respect to several key questions on the ability of democratic governance to promote greater social and economic growth and equity, Norris concluded that while no finite linkage between democracy and development exists, proven strategies for affecting change have been enacted in developing nations. According to Norris, these strategies, which are outlined in case studies in the report, need to be drawn on to identify “best practices” for state-capacity building and empowerment of the poor. While Norris acknowledged that these strategies are imperfect, she indicated that the focus in the development industry should be on furthering proven policies and not attempting to develop perfect approaches that ask too much of governments in developing nations.

Melissa Thomas, an associate professor of international development at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced Studies, commented on Norris’s presentation and the topic in general, cautioning that exorbitant claims made on behalf of democracy need to be reeled in. Thomas argued that while studies have indicated that the world’s poor are strongly committed to political equality, they tend to perceive democracy not as an intrinsic good, but more in terms of how well it can contribute to fulfilling their basic needs. To support this, Thomas drew attention to the fact that poor individuals in developing nations have been known to participate in vote-buying, where political power is traded for food and money. Practices like this typify the distinct challenges of “channeling the preferences of the poor” in developing nations. According to Thomas, development professionals must acknowledge these unique circumstances, and not attempt to impose a universal democratic model based on Western political tradition.

Joel Siegle, a senior advisor for democratic governance at DAI, lauded the way that the UNDP report conveyed the detail and “richness” of the process of democratic reform in various countries, but was critical of the study for its narrow interpretation of relevant data. Siegle argued that insufficient attention in the study was given to the recent post-Cold War progress of many democracies, and indicated that the fact that low levels of transparency exist in most autocracies skews some of the data. According to Siegle, excluding the unique success of some East Asian autocracies, the advantages of democracy for socioeconomic development are proven, as it has been shown that poor democracies outperform poor autocracies with respect to socioeconomic indicators. In light of this, Siegle argued that more relevant questions, such as how growing democracies can better address inherited inequalities, must be addressed.


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