Reconciling democracy and development: Reflections from a life of research

Oda van Cranenburgh
Facebook Twitter Email

Oda van Cranenburgh recently retired from Leiden University after a career of researching the politics of what are often called “developing countries”, including the political institutions and democratisation of African states. To mark the occasion, she gave a talk that summarised some of the main lessons learned during a lifetime of research. We liked it so much we asked for permission to reproduce it for our readers, and are delighted to be able to do so here. 

During the past 36 years I have stood in many lecture rooms in this Faculty to teach the politics of development. In teaching, my mission has always been to inculcate in students the ability to analyze, discover implicit assumptions and normative preferences in concepts and theories, and to conduct good research in this field, in other words a scientific approach to politics. So when students asked me for my own opinion, I have been careful to separate political science from ‘politics’ and my personal convictions. At the same time, I pointed to the need to examine the normative preferences influencing their judgment. Today, I am not giving a political science lecture. I would like to talk broadly and more freely about the two themes which have inspired my work during the last 40 years: democracy and development. Today, I take the liberty sometimes to be explicitly normative, and even ‘political’ at times.

During the 1980s, when I started research on politics in developing countries, there was not much democracy around in what was then called “The Third World” Whether you liked it or not, most countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa were under various kinds of authoritarian rule: military rule, personal rule, ‘bureaucratic authoritarianism’ or one party rule. Some of these authoritarian systems were rightists and exclusionary (Latin American Bureaucratic Authoritarianism, e.g. Pinochet in Chile), others were outright predatory systems resting on a mix of patronage and repression (Sultanism of Marcos and Suharto), and others were based on socialism or humanist ideals (Nyerere in Tanzania). What later came to be known as the “Third Wave of Democracy”had not yet reached the Third World.

There had been a tradition in development studies explicitly or implicitly condoning such forms of authoritarian rule: when the original optimistic equation of modernization theory that democracy would emerge as a result of modernization, proved false, and instead of democracy various forms of authoritarian regimes emerged, Huntington and various other scholars argued that unity and stability were more important in developing countries than democracy. His approach implied a focus on strong institutions.[1]

In many African countries, political leaders also expressed such ideas in the name of ‘development’. At the same time, this served to justify the ways in which they were gradually reforming the formally democratic constitutions implanted at independence, to first outlaw opposition parties and then, in the case of Africa, install one party rule. It was argued that ‘development’ required unity and strong government. This was not reserved for rightist or conservative regimes: progressive and socialist regimes were similar. It was striking how at that time, such systems were embraced by European progressive movements and social democratic governments providing development assistance. The argument made by many people, who themselves had never lived under any kind of repressive or authoritarian government and seen their friends or relatives disappear or imprisoned, was that such countries could not ‘afford’ democracy, and that it was more important to feed the people and extend social services than to have political freedom and democracy.

The idea that the developing world could do without democracy or human rights reflects the idea of a benevolent dictator, a strong ruler who was allowed, in the name national development, to concentrate much power in the hands of a single leader, repress opposition or detain dissidents. This belief in a benevolent dictator was the beginning of a double standard when it came to democracy and human rights: what we had in the West could not be extended to the Rest: the poor countries of the world. My dissertation on Tanzania very much illustrated the consequences of this view: authoritarian one-party rule led to disastrous policies for development and citizens estranged from government.[2] It was William Easterly who later forcefully criticized the idea of a benevolent dictator in a more comprehensive way.[3]

I would like to show today, that although at the surface these arguments have lost popularity from the time President Carter began to promote democracy and human rights in the Third World and with the advance of the Third Wave of democracy, in reality a die-hard conviction persists up to this day that ‘democracy’ is a luxury developing countries cannot afford, that democracy may be sacrificed in the name of developmental goals and that dictators with a developmental vision are benevolent.

What do we mean by democracy and development??

In order to disentangle this complex issue, it is important to examine more precisely what the two concepts of democracy and development mean, and how the various meanings have influenced political practice and policies in Africa. Because it is due to superficial notions of both democracy and development that a trade-off between the two was constructed.

By the 1980s, economic failure of the regimes which had sacrificed democracy in the name of a particular vision of development, abounded. Although we had exceptions of authoritarian rulers that acted in a developmental way (Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore), for every Lee we had several Mobutu’s, Robert Mugabe’s and even tyrants such as Idi Amin. This sad state of affairs led to a renewed interest in democratic reform worldwide and in particular among Western donor countries. Where in earlier times democracy was assumed to be an outcome of economic development and modernization, the belief now arose that democracy is a prerequisite for development. From the 1990s democracy promotion was placed on the international development agenda.

However, these early attempts to promote democracy in the developing world suffered from inadequate and superficial conceptualizations of democracy. The Third Wave I mentioned before, and various forms of democracy promotion by Western countries in essence led to a re-introduction of competitive multi-party elections, primarily through various kinds of election support and election monitoring or observation.[4] As during the granting of independence, ‘institutional templates’ were transferred to Africa.[5]  When governments were unwilling to introduce such institutional reforms, political conditionality was used to force them to comply. In Africa, as a result by the mid 1990s, almost every regime had held such multi-party elections.

But observers noted soon that something went wrong in these efforts to re-install democracy. People became disappointed with this democracy and went to the streets protesting their governments, which continued to be unaccountable and implemented unviable policies. The newly elected governments often resorted to the same methods of rule as their predecessors: enormous power was concentrated in the executive branch of government and even with the president, who ruled by coopting opposition and buying support, a system which can never extend the benefits of development to all.[6] Political parties did not present a clear ideology and policy program, but served as vehicles to gain power and remain in power. The question to ask was, thus, what do competitive elections mean when the parties competing do not offer meaningful choices, when parties are not based on a vision, ideology or program?[7] Moreover, the absence of checks and balances emerging from different branches of government, a pluralistic media landscape and free civil society, the ‘democratic reform’ had simply resulted in a system whereby a new dictator could be chosen every four or five years.  In extreme cases, elections only led to violence and even deaths, as in the 1992 elections in Kenya, leading some to adapt Von Clausewitz’ classic theorem and to qualify elections as ‘the continuation of war by other means’.

So on the meaning of elections, a first step is to acknowledge, of course, that democracy is more than competitive multi-party elections. The simplistic notion derived from Schumpeter’s concept of democracy as a procedure led to various so-called minimalist approaches. Although I would like to remark that this procedural notion is not really very minimalist at all (I learned how much is needed for truly free and fair elections, serving as an election observer in Africa)[8], it is clearly limited and takes multiparty elections out of context. Multi-party elections without attention to broader institutional issues, produce shallow or hollow, illiberal democracy. Multiparty elections become a charade in the absence of the broader institutions of liberal constitutionalism.

In the 1990s, prominent researchers in comparative politics argued that democracy needs more than the intermittent vertical accountability created by the possibility for citizens to elect their leaders every four or five years.[9] Democracy requires horizontal forms of accountability which work continuously through checks and balances: countervailing powers limiting the power of the executive, such as parliaments and judiciaries – issues we dealt with in Staatkunde, the course I co-taught beginning my work here as UD. These institutional issues were subject of various articles I published since the 1990s, one of them together with Petr Kopecky on the viability of consensus institutions in Africa.[10] Besides such political institutions, democracy requires countervailing powers in the form of a pluralistic press and organized civil society. In democracy, the power of the executive needs to be limited, minorities need to be protected and individuals’ rights need to be guaranteed, in other words, in a democracy freedom needs to be entrenched.

A belief in progress    

Let me now come back to the notion of development, because here too, development has often been conceived in superficial or very limited ways. Stemming from the Enlightment, a universal belief in “progress” characterized Western thinking and in the immediate postwar period a conviction existed that humankind now possessed the knowledge, technology and economic means to bring ‘progress’. What kind of progress?

In the early post-independence period of the 1950s and 60s, development very much meant national economic growth, to be achieved though the injection of capital and technology; economic growth was the goal; this also implied a benevolent role for ‘the West’. A striking element of the notion was that development was something of states, of nations, and was universally empirically measured through the use of national economic statistics, in particular the growth of national product. At the same time, the work of Gunnar Myrdal and most other development economists led to the conviction that states, or governments were the main actors in development. Writing about the population of India as apathetic and incapable of any development, it was argued that the state should take the lead in development, as in European late developers.[11] Various grand developmental schemes emerged, among those many large scale resettlement schemes, treating citizens as passive objects of development policy, in the process often violating their rights. When it comes to development, Easterly argued, nations go above individuals and state planning is preferred over incremental solutions.[12]

It took a couple of decades for observers to note that if national economic growth did not result in better living standards, more employment, access to schooling and medical care for the population at large, it could not really be ‘development’, or progress. The normative aspects of development were emphasized, with a need to specify the desired societal outcomes rather than macro-economic growth rates. But the prevailing tendency in development thinking, and especially among development economist, is that development is a technical problem, which can be solved by applying the right ‘medicine’, or economic recipe for growth. Up to this day, development ‘experts’ prescribe development policies and advise regimes regardless of their democratic or human rights record (see for example Jeffrey Sachs). These experts advise regimes like Ethiopia at the time of Meles Zenawi (the World Bank even financed the regime’s policy to resettle villagers against their will), Rwanda under Kagame and Uganda under Museveni. The question to ask here is: can we call this “development”?

Development, ultimately, should be about the improvement of the human condition. This perspective was visible in a new emphasis on social developmental goals during the 1990s, and led to the so-called Human Development Index. It was Amartya Sen who went furthest in this idea, to argue that development in essence concerns expanding the capabilities of human individuals, shifting the unit of analysis away from nations to human individuals. Moreover, he argued, growth in income is only a means to another end. Development, ultimately, is about freedom of human individuals. And Sen argued that freedom is not only an instrument to achieve development (an example of the instrumental function would be that in the presence of basic freedom and political liberty, the poor can organize movements to further specific social goals), but freedom is a constitutive part of development, is among the goals of development. Freedom implies expanding human capability. And the opposite, ‘underdevelopment’ or poverty implies human individuals are unfree: hunger and illness imply they suffer from ‘capability deprivation’. Development as freedom, Sen argued, implies human individuals are able to lead a meaningful life, to have the opportunity to go to school, be healthy and make a meaningful contribution to society.[13] In this line of thinking, development without freedom, without real democracy, is simply a contradiction in terminus.

The centrality of freedom

So both the notion of democracy and the notion of development brought me to freedom. Does this mean I have parted with my earlier social-democratic affinities and now moved into the liberal camp? To answer this, a preliminary question is: what is freedom, and what is it not?

First, I would like to emphasize, freedom is not neoliberalism. This universal recipe for economic development and growth that arose during the 1980s implied besides macro-economic stabilization, a complete liberalization of markets, privatization of all kinds of industries and services, even those which are essential public goods. In this so-called Washington Consensus, governments are reduced to caretakers ensuring the preconditions for the operation of markets, with an emphasis on providing rule of law and transparency (the “Good Governance” approach). This neoliberal standard recipe for development and economic growth showed that development was again conceived primarily in terms of macro- economic growth and stability and valued the nation above the individual. It also meant freedom for companies, but not for people (see the consequences of the so-called ‘Race to the Bottom’). Governments delegated to private companies and financial capital even collective and public goods, such as water. Services to the poor were reduced to almost nil: the poor became poorer, access to safe water, schools and medical care diminished. These policies for economic growth and macro-economic stability did not bring social or human development. Governments lost the power to manage affairs with an eye to ensuring human development and a measure of equality, and in the process created many ‘unfreedoms’ for ordinary people.

The shortcomings of the Washington Consensus and extreme neo-liberal austerity were recognized from the mid 1990s on, and within the development community, poverty reduction and social development rose on the agenda. This culminated by the year 2000 in the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals and the implementation of poverty reduction strategies. My research and teaching on these reforms showed that such reforms remained heavily circumscribed by the overall neoliberal framework, which continues to represent an explicit or implicit policy consensus, or policy paradigm in development. The so-called Post-Washington Consensus, with its emphasis in making markets work for the poor, represents a feeble attempt to make neo-liberalism more ‘inclusive’.

It is unfortunate that progressive and socialist movements worldwide failed to correct this neoliberal consensus – more or less ‘inclusive’ – and instead went along with neoliberal policies and to assign to markets services which should be provided universally; social democracy gave up its vision to steer development in a social direction. I believe that the failure of social democracy to formulate alternatives, is a contributing factor in the erosion of citizens’ confidence in government, and their estrangement from existing political parties. Democracy is under threat through the rise of populist parties and gilets jaunes, people who do no more than say NO to the existing elite and their policies. There is an unfortunate convergence between the rich Western countries and the countries in Africa in the sense that political parties seem primarily interested in gaining and holding power, have a short time horizon not to lose the next elections, and not organizations with a mission to direct development, with coherent policy program based on a more or less coherent ideology. Political parties seem to have taken Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is no Alternative’ as a guideline to their vision.

So it may seem paradoxical: where I argued for limiting the power of governments or the executive in particular in the context of ‘democracy’, I now argue to increase the power of governments, of states, to steer development, to correct and regulate markets, and take the responsibility for providing an adequate level of social services, such as schooling, water, and health care. This reminds of the argument made on the so-called ‘developmental state’. Those few examples of developing countries ensuring long term growth coupled with a level of broader human development show these states invariably had strong and capable bureaucracies, led by elites with a developmental vision, while at the same time human rights and democracy were weak. Adrian Leftwich argued that these institutional and bureaucratic features were perhaps more important than the type of regime, the question of democracy.[14] But interestingly, the two African examples of developmental states – Botswana and Mauritius, have been considered exceptions on the continent in maintaining a certain level of democracy ever since independence. I would like to put forward that it matters to what extent governments in those countries have been forced to face countervailing powers both within the political system and broader in society, and that they have simultaneously had the courage to steer development in a particular direction. 

In view of the limited contribution of political parties and the grand old ideological movements to steer ‘development’ in a more social and sustainable direction, it is not surprising that many scholars now focus their research on the various ways in which new social movements have acted in the field of development. I am talking about NGOs, development networks and grassroots movements worldwide. Within development studies, the grand theories of modernization and dependency with their focus on states, governments and other grand structures became out of vogue. Many of these poststructuralist scholars turned to radical critiques of development by ‘de-constructing’ the concept of development. Their mission is to counter dominant and imperial ‘narratives’ which were based on implicit assumptions about the primacy of states and markets as units of analysis. These scholars focused on visions and practices from the bottom up, the many diverse local peoples ‘encountering’ development.[15] Within this approach, the unit of analysis is local peoples, and diversity is celebrated as an inherent good. Their contribution to the field was to shift the analysis away from the macro level, from states, and implicit belief in the well intentioned governments, to local realities on the ground and how actors at the local level have responded to global pressures and processes. But these so-called ‘subaltern narratives’ have done little to actually change development policies and practice, which implies development studies has experienced a degree of stasis.

Some exceptions to this stasis are found in the work on ‘governance for development’. This small stream of research focuses not on grand schemes and universal templates, but on experiments with hybrid forms of governance at local level using trial and error.[16] On the one hand, this research showed that people can make a difference; and it is clear also that freedom constitutes a necessary pre-condition for action of people to promote their interests; on the other hand, they pointed to obstacles for collective action in institutional problems. This type of research brings back a focus on institutions, but this time, not based on universal or Western templates, but hybrid forms, adapted to local conditions and cultures. They point to obstacles for development in unclear and overlapping institutional mandates, incoherent policies and wrong or even perverse incentives, problems which can be addressed through local and flexible experiments involving people at the grass roots level, so a democratic form of development.

So it may be clear that political freedom cannot be: you do whatever you wish. Inherent in freedom for all is that your freedom is limited by the need to maintain and enhance other people’s freedom. Inherent in freedom, if you extend it to all, is social responsibility. The normative choice for freedom is inherently social. Freedom implies that we make political and policy choices and formulate laws that may limit our own freedom in order to protect or enhance the freedom of other individuals in our society. It also implies that our political institutions must facilitate collective action and create the right incentives to further social goals. Attempts to violate human freedom in the name of some higher goal, whether it was socialism, nationalism or “developmentalism”, have always led to policies of discrimination, ethnic cleansing and violation of individual rights. It is my hope that my talk today helped to remind everyone on the importance of freedom, broadly conceived, as inherent in any kind of democratic development.

Oda van Cranenburgh lectured and researched comparative politics, most recently political institutions and democratisation in Africa, at Leiden University. She was a member of the Advisory Board for International Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the government of the Netherlands.




[1] His classic work provides an important institutional perspective up to this day. See: S. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (London: Yale University Press, 1968).

[2] See ‘The Widening Gyre: The Tanzanian One-Party State and Policy Towards Rural Cooperatives’ (Delft: Eburon, 1990).

[3] See William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[4] An overview of these policies and their limits is found in my article ‘Democracy Promotion in Africa: the institutional context,’ Democratization, Vol 18, no 2 (April 2011).

[5] See Thomas Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999).

[6] See my article ‘Big Men Rule: Presidential Power, Regime Type and Democracy in 30 African Countries’, Democratization, Vol 15, no 5 (December 2008).

[7] Thomas Carothers, Confronting the Weakest Link: Aiding Political Parties in New Democracies (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006).

[8] For an overview on election observation see my chapter ‘Democratization in Africa: The Role of Election Observation’ in Election Observation and Democratization in Africa, J. Abbink and G. Hesseling, eds (London: MacMillan Press, 2000).

[9] See Guillermo O’Donnell, ’Horizontal Accountability in New Democracies’ Journal of Democracy, Vol 9, no 3 (1998).

[10] See the article co-authored with Petr Kopecky, ‘Political Institutions in New Democracies: (Not so) Hidden Majoritarianism in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Acta Politica Vol 39 (2004).

[11] See Gunnar Myrdal’s Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1968).

[12] See William Easterly, cited in note 3.

[13] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books, 1999).

[14] Adrian Leftwich, States of Development: On the Primacy of Politics in Development (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).

[15] See Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[16] See David Booth and Diana Cammack, Governance for Development in Africa: solving collective action problems (London: Zed Books, 2013) and many publications by Merilee Grindle.

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!