By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Democracy engenders growth
A recent paper by Acemoglu et al. in the top-rated Journal of Political Economy shows evidence that “Democracy does cause growth.” It does this by attracting more investment, facilitating increased educational attainment, spurring economic reforms, decreasing social restiveness and thus the security of lives and property, and the provision of public services. Democracy also engenders economic growth by making opportunities available to most of the people as opposed to a powerful few.
The study also finds that the beneficial effects of democracy on economic growth are robust across developing and advanced economies. In other words, they do not find that democracy weighs on the growth of developing economies; as argued by a substantial part of the extant literature. When a country adopts a democratic form of government, the authors assert, its GDP per capita rises by at least 20 percent over the subsequent 30 years; albeit they find this effect to be easily attained in countries with already high levels of educational attainment.
The study also finds that democracy is contagious. When democracy takes hold in one country, its neighbours tend to become democractic as well. In other words, “the probability of a country transitioning to democracy or nondemocracy is strongly correlated with the same transition occurring in other countries in the same region.” Even so, country-specific values are significant factors underpinning the evolution of the democratization process.
Reduce the cost of democracy
There is a difference between an electoral democracy and a liberal democracy. The latter is ideal but the former is what is prevalent. Following from this, it could be argued that Africa cannot yet boast of a country where true democracy thrives. That is, one based on the classical Abraham Lincoln definition of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Botswana is probably an exception, though. Little wonder, there are increasing complaints in mostly poor African countries about the effectiveness and costs of “democracy”.
The so-called “dividends of democracy” remain elusive to many and elected officials are rarely held accountable. Besides, political aspiration is largely exclusionary due to high barriers to entry related to financial capacity. Political parties charge exorbitant fees for registration and other party-related financing. Campaign costs are also prohibitive. There are similarly huge expenses borne by politicians for dishing out patronage; which incidentally they tend to make sure to recoup with “interest” when they eventually win. Bottomline, you could not aspire to political office if you were not rich or sponsored by the rich.
Additionally, parliaments that are supposed to check the potential excesses of executives, tend to end up being little more than rubber stamps; especially when controlled by ruling parties. Thus, there is an urgent need for political reforms in many poor African “democracies.” Good thing then that with information and communications technology (ICT) increasingly spurring more direct participation of the general public in governance matters, there is an opportunity to make the necessary changes with relative ease.
A people’s assembly
I recommend a truly representative and egalitarian unicameral (“People’s Assembly”) legislature. Firstly, aspiring legislators should all be independent candidates and not belong to a political party. That way, no party controls the legislature. Registration and other formalities for election into the legislature should be free or for pittance and must be via the electoral body. Thus, no party primaries. And while independent candidates would still be qualified and eligible to participate in elections to executive positions (president, governor, premier, etc.), political parties would be the primary vehicle for such positions. If the rational assumption, in light of history thus far, that political parties are likely already captured by the rich elite is made, an egalitarian and truly representative People’s Assembly would be an ideal counterbalance.