Does democracy matter for the poor? — Abdurrahman Syebubakar

APRIL 13 ― Since its emergence in ancient Greece more than two millennia ago, democracy has then witnessed ups and downs. As pointed out by Robert Dhal (1989), in the history of its development, various forms of democracy emerged and collapsed. Despite all the good and bad stories about it, the pace of democratisation across the globe has accelerated especially since 1970s and today about one-half of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort.

There is one question which remains challenging and requires exploration: Does democracy matter for the poor? Scholars are divided in providing answers to this question. One camp of social and political scientists argue that poor people have not benefited from democracies. Michael Ross of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA 2005), for instance, suggested that previous studies on the benefits entailed by democracy for the poor were wrong: “between 1970 and 2000 poor people fared no better under democratic governments than they did under non-democratic ones”.

To make things worse, critics have rushed to blame democracy for causing the rise in the global poverty and inequality in the last few decades. And instead, it is claimed that a country needs an authoritarian regime to produce robust economic growth, and in turn, economic growth helps lift up the plight of the poor. This belief owes  the Lee hypothesis, due to its advocate ― the late Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father and former President of Singapore. The Lee hypothesis also occupies leaders in Asia including Indonesia’s Soeharto, Marcos of the Philippines, and several others. 

Not only that all this claim is based on limited and sporadic empirical evidence, but profoundly is attributed to the narrow definitions of democracy and poverty. Here, democracy is merely seen in its procedural forms and typically identified as a country where there are electoral competitions to elect and replace leaders. Similarly, poverty tends to be viewed as economic deprivations, the lack of income in particular, based on monetary measures.   

To do justice in answering this very question, we must go beyond the narrow confines of democracy and poverty. Democracy is not only about the majority rule, and election is merely part of the story. People participation, respect for human rights, political pluralism, freedom from different kinds of deprivations and freedom to socio-political and economic rights, popular sovereignty, free flow of information, equality before the law, transparency and accountability of governance constitute essential part of the ingredients of democracy.

Poverty must be measured in its multidimensionality, not limited to economic but multiple deprivations. Those who are economically poor, may not necessarily be multi-dimensionally deprived, and vise-versa. And poverty is highly intertwined with other socio-political rights. In order to be effective, the fight against poverty should go hand in hand with efforts to provide opportunities for people’s voices to be heard, to participate in development processes that affect their everyday lives and to ensure greater accountability and inclusiveness of public decision making.

There are good intrinsic reasons and convincing evidence that democracy works for the poor. Proponents argue that generally there are three ways by which democracy helps the poor, namely democratic elections force governments to attend to the people’s needs, the free flow of information provides governments with better information about the needs and condition of the poor, and democratic governments provide the poor with more and quality services.

The most prominent proponent of democracy working for the poor is Amartya Sen, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics and the human development guru. In his well-acknowledged book Development as Freedom (1999), Sen asserts that there has never been a substantial famine in a functioning multi-party democracy. It is noted that famines are not only absent in a relatively well-off democratic countries, but even in those democratic countries happening to be economically very poor such as India, Bostwana or Zimbabwe. In contrast, the terrible history of famines was recorded in dictatorial regimes, whether economically poor or not, such as the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and China in 1958-1961 with nearly 30 million people died due to the famine. The world’s contemporary famines occurred in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and North Korea, all of which are dictatorially governed.  

Many other studies (1970s-2000s), both quantitative and qualitative, convincingly show that democracies perform much better than non-democracies in a wide array of socio-economic indicators such as living standards, infant mortality, malnutrition etc. While democracies enjoy acceleration and deepening across the globe, Jeffrey Sachs (2005) noted the substantial shrinking of extreme poverty both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the world’s population between 1980 and 2000.

Referring to the most recent global democracy and human development indices, it is obvious that full democracies outperform non-democracies in human development outcomes. Just to mention a few, these are Norway, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Costa-Rica. Majority of these countries highly ranked in the global Democracy Index have been consistently seated on the top of the world’s Human Development Index which emphasizes poverty as a multidimensional phenomenon. On the other hand, there are exceptionally a few countries like Singapore, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries governed by authoritarian regimes perform quite well in human development. And one cannot assure that their human development achievements would be sustainable. 

How about Indonesia?

Since embarking upon a new democratic era nearly two decades ago, Indonesia generally has continued its progress in human development in terms of increasing household income, and ensuring that more people reach their educational potential and live longer and healthier lives. Indonesia was also able to weather the storm of the global financial crisis of 2008/2009 appeared to threaten its achievement and the global economy. This is not to disregard the country’s current large number of poor and vulnerable people as well as stubborn income and regional inequalities. It necessitates Indonesia to deepen democratisation in order to better enable its citizens, especially the poor, to join more fully in the processes and decisions that affect their lives.

In a nutshell, democracy does not beget the problems plaguing the plight of the poor. Neither it serves as a panacea for all deprivations experienced by the poor, but it can open up opportunities for the poor to employ their potentials to achieve their desired outcomes in life. In addition, democracy entails non-economic benefits for the poor in the form of political rights. Indeed, to be denied participating in the political life is a substantial deprivation, constituting a different form of poverty.

In order for democracy to function well, thus contributing effectively to the improvement of the poor’s well-being, it requires a balance of some sort of the strong state, the rule of law and accountable government as put forward by Francis Fukuyama in his book The Origins of Political Order: From Pre-human Times to the French Revolution (2015).  

* Abdurrahman Syebubakar chairs the Institute for Democracy Education (IDe), a Jakarta-based Think Tank promoting Human Development and Democracy.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Related posts