Democracy’s mixed blessings

By Eveness Zuze and David Booth

African countries need economic transformation. They need it not just to raise general living standards but to create conditions in which people can enjoy social and political freedoms, including the right to choose their rulers. Economic advance and political progress are clearly linked in this sense.

As the Joint Statement argued, however, whether liberal-democratic political constitutions are good for economic transformation is a much more complicated matter. One reason is that constitutions don’t shape people’s behaviour – similar constitutions have very different effects depending on countries’ economic and social structures.

Malawi adopted a multi-party constitution in 1994. Recent events in the country illustrate the point that the behaviour of politicians and voters is shaped by factors that run deeper than the formal rules, with important consequences.

Most people were relieved that, after some days of uncertainty, the presidential succession from Bingu wa Mutharika to Joyce Banda happened smoothly. However, there is another aspect to what happened that is equally important.

Not for the first time in Malawi, the new president leads a party other than the one on whose ticket s/he was originally elected. As in 2004, what is now happening is that MPs from the party formerly in power are defecting in large numbers to the new governing party. They are doing so in many cases without consulting their constituents and anyway contrary to Section 65 of the Constitution which prohibits MPs from dumping the party that got them elected.

The important point is that constituents not only condone but tend to approve such behaviour. They are happy enough to switch loyalties. Other things being equal, people strongly prefer to be represented by leaders associated with the ruling party, whichever party that is.

This can be dismissed as a sign of Malawians’ political immaturity – a ‘single party mentality’ persisting in a multi-party system. But the behaviour is quite rational in a context where economic opportunities are limited, there are few avenues of individual and group advancement that are as promising as politics, and the best opportunities are reserved for those adhering to the ruling party. Similar things happened after the surprise victory of Michael Sata’s party in Zambia last year, and for the same reasons.

This is the way politics are, not just in Malawi and Zambia but in numerous other countries in Africa (and elsewhere). Citizens and friends of these countries can respond to the reality in one of two ways: condemning it in the name of principles of integrity or accountability, or taking it as the starting point for hard thinking about how to handle the consequences.

The willingness of MPs to defect raises the stakes in presidential contests. It strengthens the aspect of ‘winner takes all’.

In Malawi and Zambia, this aspect may not have the potential to generate political violence that it has in countries like Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire. But it surely does increase the pressure on presidential contenders to reward support in the most cost-effective ways – namely with targeted vote-buying or threats, and grand but irresponsible policy gestures. It also increases the political risks associated with tackling the big policy challenges that are recognised as the key to national economic transformation. That is one of the issues that the Joint Statement puts on the table for discussion.

The solutions are not easy, and they are not to be found in textbooks of constitutional theory. The problem of adapting Africa’s actually existing democratic systems to make them less unfriendly to economic transformation is a new problem. The rethinking has to start here!

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16 Responses to Democracy’s mixed blessings

  1. Martin Dawson says:

    It is important not to lapse into a reactionary position due to the (perceived) failure of the Good Governance agenda and say well that’s the way it is – we must just build on that. The efforts of the past decade to develop Good Governance may yet turn out to be a pivotal process, the proof of which may only be apparent in retrospect from some decades hence.

    The solution to the crisis of the State in Africa probably lies in addressing a multitude of factors that include modes of governance, economics, structural and procedural matters but, more than any of these, in developing a conscious and active citizenry who are prepared to assert their rights and responsibilities. Mamdani’s Subject versus Citizen debate is even more relevant now!

    • David Booth says:


      It’s good that you have challenged us in this way, because the sentiments you express are no doubt widely shared, especially among those who are activists as well as researchers on African governance issues. I don’t think any of us in the five research programmes would question your aspirations. But aspirations are one thing, and getting there is another.

      I don’t think it’s reactionary to want to base strategies and tactics on the way things really are, not just the way one would want them to be. And the evidence base provided by projects and social movements promoting ‘good governance’ (more than 20 years, not just ten, by the way) would seem substantial enough to support a few conclusions. Your suggestion that even now it is too early to tell seem a little over-cautious!

      That said, I don’t think our position is that nothing at all that has been done under the umbrella of good governance has made a useful contribution. Anyway, countries differ. What is realistic in one may not be realistic in another. We were writing about Malawi and Zambia, suggesting that, whatever one’s aspirations for those countries, one should be paying attention to the actual rules of the political game that are being followed.

      In Zimbabwe, for example, the rules are no doubt different, and they are different partly because the country’s socio-economic structure is not the same. This different structure means, among other things, that the idea of a ‘conscious and active citizenry’ playing a key role in transforming the State would need to be assessed differently (although I would not claim to know enough to make that assessment myself).

      The observation that democratic constitutions and electoral contests have very different effects in different economic and social settings – and therefore at different levels of development – is one of the themes of the Joint Statement. On this, I think we are well supported by the important 2009 re-reading of world history by Douglass North and company:

      As you know, there is a lot more detail on the way politics works in Malawi, and its social and economic effects, in the APPP reports by Diana Cammack and her team:

      • Martin Dawson says:

        Indeed! I didn’t mean reactionary in a political sense though: I think the APPP work is more a synthesis based on the realities in various countries that will result in new ways of considering political development from a more organic perspective. One of the most important contributions is the appeal to understand these realities and not rely on a ‘magic bullet’ approach that certainly underlies some approaches. On the other hand, an overly pragmatic approach may end up justifying forms of autocracy (in which I would include neo-patrimonialism) which perpetuates the social and political oppression of the majority in the pursuit of elite economic development.

  2. Seth Kaplan says:


    Do you think that democracy as it is currently practiced in these countries is doing anything to reduce “the social and political oppression of the majority in the pursuit of elite economic development”?

    I wonder whether this focus on autocracy versus democracy misses something more fundamental about how these societies are structured. I don’ t think the political regime captures the essence of the problem. It is in many ways irrelevant to what is going on.

  3. Martin Dawson says:

    It is unwise to generalise across the spectrum of sub-Saharan countries but there are few countries that actually have a genuine democracy. Even Botswana, widely regarded as a democracy, is really an autocracy with an entrenched patriarchy aligned with a powerful corporation dominating the political system – economic development favours this elite over the general population. Zambia sees the new party of government happily using patronage to buy off the former incumbent’s supporters yet there is a vibrant street-level culture of democracy and people are not afraid to express their opinions. In Kenya there is a growing popular democracy eg Bunge La Mwananchi ( and people are very assertive of their rights to democratic space. Democracy is no guarantor of economic equity but it certainly provides more fertile ground in which to pursue equity than patrimonial societies based upon patronage and oppression.

    In terms of the quality of life however, the nature of the political regime is critical. Not sure where you live but here in Zimbabwe it is far from “irrelevant to what is going on” and even amongst my colleagues in Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and Kenya who enjoy a form of nascent democracy, it is a critical component of the very air they breathe. Ask a Somalian, a Congolese…

  4. Rasmus Hundsbæk says:

    You claim that the existing democratic systems – ‘unfriendly’ to economic transformation – are the major developmental challenge in Africa. The real question is: what is the alternative?

    We know from Afrobarometer surveys since the early 2000s, that Africans prefer multi-party democracy over authoritarian forms of government. In other words, according to you, Africans seem to prefer the types of regimes that do not provide incentives for political elites to tackle the real problems of economic transformation.
    – Are you, thereby, suggesting that Africans do not know about the centrality of economic transformation for poverty alleviation and increased competitiveness in a global economy?

    I would like to suggest that Africans know that democracy does not lead to economic transformation, but that they have made a trade-off. They have realised that they are better off with a democracy that provides lacklustre economic performance than they were with a one-man, one-party or military rule, which did not deliver much economic transformation either.

    To come back to the alternative: Is it possible to identify any kind of regime – democracy, rule of law, accountability, centralised rent-management – that does not lead to mixed blessings?

  5. David Booth says:

    Thanks for asking what the real question is. I think the point of our joint statement is to try to open up a discussion which gets away from the conventional menu of alternatives and in particular gets people thinking about the particular form of democracy they want. Of course, people in Africa are making conscious trade-offs about the things Martin mentions, and none of the potential alternatives are going to be unmixed blessings. However, there are some trade-offs that are hardly present in the public discussion in most African countries.

    One is the terrible price that the winner-takes-all form of democracy threatens to exact from ordinary people in places like Kenya (an issue that is avoided perhaps precisely because the implications are potentially so terrible). The other is the harm that the political incentive structure of competitive clientelism does to the conditions for economic transformation. I don’t think a conscious trade-off is being made about this by ordinary citizens because, apart from the continent’s leading economists like K.Y. Amoako who write eloquently about the harm done by neglecting the issue, there is a low level of understanding of how high the stakes are.

    The point of our intervention is not to advocate reviving some dead option, like personal or military dictatorship, but just to suggest that there is a problem here that needs thinking about, and that ‘good governance’ doesn’t get us far in doing so.

    It is precisely because ‘what is the alternative?’ is a very hard question to answer that we need to keep posing it!

    • Rasmus says:

      Your answer inspires me to ask the what-is-the-alternative question again.
      You seem to indicate that certain types of democracy may be more helpful to economic growth than others. However, you merely identify the types that you dismiss, for instance, Kenya.
      – Would it not be relevant to start identifying the types of democratic institutions that are beneficial and why? Could you provide one or more concrete example of desirable and feasible alternative options in African settings?

  6. Seth Kaplan says:

    Is there any thought of devising a new set of indicators to measure “responsible governance” (or “inclusive governance”)?

    Discussions about governance, democracy, etc. do not capture the essence of the problem because they end up focusing on how we frame the issues and measure what we believe are the results. If these fail to capture something important, you need to establish a new mechanism to anchor our perspective.

  7. Martin Dawson says:

    I am sceptical of indicators – at best they can only give an impressionistic picture but often end up being quoted as ‘fact’. The World Bank set of indicators ( with indices on Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and Absence of Violence/Terrorism, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, Control of Corruption) are probably the most useful. Sites like The Happy Planet Index are interesting but not particularly useful (

  8. Seth Kaplan says:

    You put your finger on the problem. Indicators are accepted as ‘fact’ even though they often misrepresent reality. The WB indicators, for instance, take a one-dimensional approach to corruption (it is always bad), accountability (it must come through elections), etc. They are often accepted as the standard by which countries must be judged even though they are rooted in a modern Western concept of how countries ought to work. I don’t think they properly explain why China, Indonesia, etc. worked when and how they did.

    If you want to change the conversation on development, you are going to have to create your own set of indicators that people can use. Otherwise, you will always get crowded out by these supposed facts.

    Fukuyama is working on a project worth referencing. I write about it here:

  9. Søren Jarnvig says:

    First, it’s been great to read these blog posts as follow-ups to the seminar at Diis.
    As interesting as the day back in March was, I was somewhat left with the nagging feeling that the main take away of the day -that incentives matter- was perhaps too simple.

    To be the devil’s advocate for a minute, I’m sure that past proponents of the structural adjustment programmes would equally claim that their policy recommendations relied more than anything on a recognition of the centrality of incentives.

    So, I’m glad to see the ‘real questions’ broad to the table above. However, I tend to think that pondering about ‘the alternatives’ in the way a lot of research is carried out these days, really just pushes the key question one step back and is left unanswered. Think of the outcome as the token use of ‘context matters’. I’d suggest that there’s a need to ask how that context, or those rules of the game, came to be and should best be defined – or essentially, how they’re becoming.

    My personal opinion is that there’s a need to fundamentally re-engage with the study of institutions, their multifaceted manifestations, how they’re formed and adapt to change. It’s my impression that their complexity has led to a praxis, where studies (often only implicitly) cherry pick their definition of institutions according to the research question, which might fit the purpose in the specific context but is really detrimental to informing policy in a wider context. Some of the programmes from this joint initiative are exceptions.

    I apologise that this is probably more of a comment than a question. I suppose my question would be what people think of it. Do we get to the real questions?

    Finally, as a number of good reads have been mentioned in this debate let me join in and plug Frances Cleaver’s “Development Through Bricolage: Rethinking Institutions for Natural Resource Management” , which is to be published in a couple of weeks. I think she’s got some very good and important observations about the complexity of institutions, the very meek prospective for designing them, and, in my opinion, while having some similarities to the work on institutions by Avner Greif, provides a better perspective on the multiple equilibrium nature of them, than Avner Greif accomplish in his book “Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy”. Also highly recommendable btw.


  10. David Booth says:

    The various strands of discussion are linking up nicely now. I shall watch with interest Fukuyama’s project on indicators of governance quality to which Seth draws our attention. Seth may be right that you have to get into the indicators business if you want the policy world to pay attention. But I very much hope he is wrong, because I don’t think we are going to have good enough theory to support valid indicators any time soon. As Søren warns, at the moment we have quite lot of token acknowledgement of ‘context matters’, and relatively little specific theory about how incentives work in particular sorts of contexts (and, yes, about how and when the rules of the game change – Grief’s topic).

    Part of the problem is that as researchers we can only study what exists or has existed. To answer Rasmus’ insistent question about what form of democracy would do better than the actually existing forms in Africa, we need to know about institutional innovations that have not yet been tried, and which anyway would need to be worked out in detail by country actors, in context, to have any chance of succeeding.

    One thing that is clear is that trying out any of the innovations which might make existing democracies more friendly to economic transformation would entail elites and their followers solving major collective-action problems – one of the reasons we headlined that concept in the other discussion on this blogsite.

    For example, I would conjecture that in countries with a politico-ethnic structure like Kenya’s, some element of permanent power-sharing is essential. In the mainstream democracy literature, there is some evidence that a mild form of power-sharing, consisting of proportional representation plus guaranteed representation of minorities, makes democracy work better, in conventional terms (Pippa Norris, ‘All Elections Are Not the Same’ in Staffan Lindberg’s edited book, ). I would want to go further, but would expect the benefits to be more far-reaching too.

    My other conjecture would visualise an elite agreement to place certain topics that are recognised to be absolutely fundamental to national development outside the sphere of political competition (in the way that monetary policy is protected from politics in some countries). An agreement to put a ceiling the size of cabinets and parliaments would be another way of limiting the harm done to national interests by political competition in a clientelist framework.

    These are just conjectures, and I am sure they are subject to Søren’s point about institutional change having ‘multiple equilibria’. But just thinking about them reveals the scale of the challenges to collective action that would be entailed. Perhaps what follows is that, rather than pretending that political institutions can be cleverly designed, the thing to focus on is the conditions under which country elites might come to address the hurdles they face from day one in acting together to pursue national interests.

    • Seth Kaplan says:

      For me, David’s last comment is the most important: “rather than pretending that political institutions can be cleverly designed, the thing to focus on is the conditions under which country elites might come to address the hurdles they face from day one in acting together to pursue national interests.”

      Redesigning political institutions because existing structures are inappropriate (because they reduce the ability of societies to solve collective action problems as currently designed) is very important. Such an approach must go well beyond the country level. Both regional (West Africa for instance) and subnational (provincial/local) institutions are better suited to solve some of the issues that hold back development in Africa and in fragile states in general.

      But, even more important than this is finding some way to address the intrasociety issues that plague so many countries across Africa (and the Middle East and to some extent elsewhere). Why has Korea/China/Taiwan/etc. produced leaders at critical junctures committed to national development while most countries in Africa (and the Middle East, etc.) have not? What is it about East Asian societies (and ideologies) that enable them to promote progress irrespective of regime type? These are critical questions that have not been adequately addressed. The fact that the answers lie outside the scope of what most Westerners’ own ideologies tell them to believe (see Rotberg’s comments on the previous post) does not mean that the answers are not highly relevant.

      Incentives surely matter but why are the incentives that leaders face in these countries more oriented towards development than elsewhere? What about their histories, cohesiveness, sociopolitical dynamics, concepts of leadership, morality, and so on have produced such excellent outcomes?

      A focus on the state and its leaders excludes the possibility that there are greater forces in society that determine a country’s broad direction. Understanding these forces would explain a lot–and offer a set of ideas on how such forces might be reproduced elsewhere.

  11. David Booth says:

    I just got my hands on a book that has really useful things to say on several of the topics above, Bo Rothstein’s The Quality of Government. It has an interesting conceptualisation of quality of government focusing not on the input side (e.g. procedures that reflect principles of political equality) but on the output side: the degree of ‘impartiality’ reflected in what governments do.

    Rothstein makes a good argument for believing that it’s impartiality of a government’s outputs that determines its legitimacy (as determined, ultimately, whether citizens take up arm against it), not whether democratic, or any other, principles were followed on the input side – telling examples are given from Iraq, the Balkans, Finland etc. This captures some of concerns of Seth’s book about ethnic or confessional communities feeling or not feeling that they will be discriminated against, which is largely independent of whether there is majority rule or not – all very relevant to Syria.

    Rothstein’s institute in Gothenburg has made some progress in turning this concept into indicators, starting with an expert opinion survey in a number of countries.

    I suggested that the most pertinent question is what it would take for African elites to address the collective-action problems that stop them acting in the national interest. Rothstein’s critique of conventional ant-corruption approaches is really interesting here. I won’t give you the details, but the argument ends with the story of how both Sweden and Denmark, having been highly corrupt and inefficient, enacted a series of reforms to the public service in the space of a few decades in the middle of the 19th century, prompted by … crushing military defeats which threatened those countries’ very existence.

    You will say that raises new questions about the alternative for Africa. It does.

  12. Søren says:

    I feel I need to clarify that Frances Cleaver does not herself make any reference to neither multiple equilibria nor Avner Greif. That is just my reading of her book and an attempt to communicate the message in a language more familiar to economics trained decision makers. An approach I may have to reconsider.

    When I mentioned multiple equilibria, I did so with physical chemist (!) Ilya Prigogine in mind. The key point here is not that there are multiple plausible outcomes under a certain set of circumstances, which I suppose is implied in your comment, David, (and is Greif’s understanding) although that is true too. It is rather that the outcome is most often in a state of multiple equilibria; hence the point that the rules are essentially becoming as opposed to simply present. In other words, the context is not a stable system, which allows us to define a coherent structure of incentives after careful analysis. (However, multiple equilibria should not be mistaken for arbitrary and erratic non-equilibria.)

    I must mention that I’m a mere novice to research in general and to national level politics in particular, in that my own research for a MSc. degree concentrates, as rigorously as possible, on why institutions designed for water provision that are implemented in the same way across Kyrgyz rural villages end up having highly varied outcomes. Nevertheless, if I look to Kyrgyz national politics, I recognise many patterns from the local level. Incentives of the elites are certainly key but trying to map the incentive structure is a perplexing business.

    The actions and incentives of Kyrgyz politicians are appearing to be rooted in multiple identities with differing interests. I could write at length giving examples of actions motivated on a backdrop of the extraordinary combination of clan and family ties, ethnicity, business interests, geographic divides, post-communism, Islam, animism, parliamentarism, reference to constituencies that are nowhere to be found in the electoral laws, the expectation of a return to presidential rule etc., etc. Some of these, like e.g. ethnicity even, are in themselves mutable depending on the situation. Kyrgyzstan is currently on its eighth constitution since independence in 1991, all written with considerable assistance from Western experts.

    Modelling such context based on available theory with the ambition to design the correct institutions is futile in my opinion.

    Which all brings us back to my initial proposal that we need to dig deeper regarding our understanding of institutions and quite possibly enter that jungle Adrian Leftwich mentioned in a comment to the other post on this blog. I remain convinced, however, that it is a path that needs to be taken in order to sensibly get to those “conditions under which country elites might come to address the hurdles they face from day one in acting together to pursue national interests” that David mentions.

    I’ll stop now. I promise.

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