Why Democracy Matters for Development in Africa

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The spectre of authoritarian development models looms large over Africa. As states such as Rwanda and Ethiopia have seemingly combined strong economic growth with limited political rights and, farther afield, China has continued its dramatic transformation into an economic superpower under one-party rule, the idea that political and economic inclusion go hand in hand is under considerable strain. A renewed defence of the importance of democracy for development is therefore needed.

Democracy, of course, has tremendous normative value. The right to participate in politics is a good that should require no justification beyond its service to basic human dignity and individual freedom, and has been recognized, in principle if not in practice, by most states. It is the instrumental value of democracy that requires further elaboration. The true measure of a political system, in the logic of authoritarian development, is not its ability to translate popular opinion into policy, but to use policy to spur economic growth. Popular opinion in authoritarian development is, at best, irrelevant. At worst, it can be seen as an active impediment to the rational policymaking that sound economic management demands. For governments that are reluctant to share the spoils of political power, the appeals of such a position are obvious.

But democracy remains vital for those who stand to benefit most from development. For the large share of Africans who make their living in the informal economy and whose livelihoods, by definition, render them uniquely vulnerable to the exercise of state power, political engagement and economic empowerment are inseparable. Democracy, for them, is not at odds with inclusive development. It is a necessary precondition.

­Changing Fortunes in Kampala and Cape Town

The importance of democracy for the urban poor is perhaps most apparent in periods of transition, during which the expansion or contraction of political rights can be seen to have profound consequences for how informal economies are governed. Two contrasting cases are particularly illuminating. In Uganda, a gradual yet concerted process of de-democratization under the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has posed significant challenges for those who engage in informal economic activity. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Kampala, where the argument that democratic politics can stand in the way of development has been used to justify a dramatic consolidation of power. This process is marked most notably by the introduction of a new local government body in 2011 that has limited the power of elected officials. But this has not meant trading political rights for economic gains. Instead, the form of development that has been pursued has put the livelihoods of the urban poor under threat. Street vending has been repressed as a direct consequence of the city’s political change, while vendors, without the political influence that democratic processes provide, have been unable to contest their marginalization. Greater competition ostensibly still exists in national politics, but there too empowerment is limited. A similar desire to solidify political control has long led to extensive interference in the city’s markets, often by President Museveni personally. As competing claims and plans are backed, challenged or ignored according to personal ties and allegiances, the consequence for many of this form of politics is limited choice and a diminishing prospect of benefiting from development.

In contrast, the process of democratization in South Africa that accompanied the end of apartheid has had a markedly different impact on how informality is governed. While political exclusion has brought repression and manipulation in Kampala, greater inclusion in Cape Town has instead led to steps towards recognition and accommodation, emphasized most notably in the city’s 2009 Informal Trading By-Law and 2013 Informal Trading Policy. The law, once used to codify segregation, dispossession and state violence, now provides the urban poor with protections that reflect, at least in principle, the rights enshrined in the country’s democratic constitution. The break that this represents from the apartheid period should not be underestimated.

Yet the flaws that characterize the governance of informality in Cape Town reveal much about the persistent shortcomings, despite years of progress, of South African democracy. An extensive survey of informal food vendors carried out by the Hungry Cities Partnership in 2017 reveals that conditions of poverty are central to understanding why people engage in a particularly prominent form of informal economic activity and the challenges that they face when they do. South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, and the extreme disparities, forms of exclusion and racial divisions that define the informal economy in Cape Town reflect a deeper failure to address the economic legacies of apartheid, still perhaps the defining challenge of South African politics. It is a challenge that neither the Democratic Alliance (DA), which controls Cape Town, nor the African National Congress (ANC), which continues to dominate the country’s politics, has been able to meet. A generation after the introduction of democracy, the state remains excessively bureaucratic, corruption is endemic and the dynamics of party politics mean that policy, transparency and accountability often do not enjoy the prominence they should. All have prevented democracy in the country from fulfilling its promise. All must be overcome if it is to do so.

Democracy, Informality and the Urban Poor

Several things must hold for the urban poor to be able to influence the governance of informal economic activity. Democratic institutions and processes must exist that ground government action—either in terms of official policy or implementation—in popular opinion. Politicians must believe that their actions will have electoral consequences and act to secure their positions through the pursuit of improved policy outcomes. Voters must hold elected officials accountable when these are not forthcoming. And they must, of course, prioritize inclusion.

A number of these are absent in Kampala. The change in the structure of the city’s government has weakened the link, however tenuous and imperfect, between governance and public input that existed in local politics. At the national level, political competition has fuelled a politics of patronage and strategic neglect. Rising authoritarianism in Uganda has not facilitated a form of development that has benefitted the urban poor. Nor is it meant to. When primacy is given to questions of political power over all else, growth becomes a means to an end and the fate of the urban poor becomes incidental. Demanding inclusion is only possible when conditions exist that ensure these demands are heeded. When the poor have little democratic space in which to operate, they are inescapably subjected to the capriciousness of power politics and the interests of an otherwise unresponsive political class. Development, without their input, does not benefit them; indeed, it can be actively harmful.

Prospects are brighter in Cape Town. Perhaps nowhere else in Africa has democratization so transformed the rights of the poor. But democratization is not an event – it is a process that demands constant engagement and effort from those who seek to benefit from it. South African voters have so far failed to punish economic mismanagement at the ballot box, and while there are signs that this may be changing, growing disengagement, particularly among the young and the poor, is concerning, as is evidence of rising disillusionment with democracy. If development needs democracy, democracy too must deliver for those who need it most.

Cape Town’s experiences illustrate how much work remains to be done if the twin promises of political and economic inclusion are to be met. But the answer lies in more, not less, democracy, and in designing ever better democratic institutions and processes to ensure that informed public opinion, debate and deliberation serve as the foundation for policy design. The urban poor have much to gain from the spread of democracy. And they have much to lose when it disappears.

Graeme Young is a Research Associate at the Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods at the University of Glasgow.

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