Should development trump democracy?

The Chinese model of state-led development is seen by many as the way to bring greater prosperity to Africa, but can it be relied upon to deliver?


Since leaving office in 2015, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has proved a dogged critic of Africa’s status quo, advocating for climate change action, scientific progress and economic development while highlighting the iniquities of corruption and misrule in many African states.

In May, the ex-World Bank managing director ruffled feathers once again with an on-the-nose critique of Africa’s trend towards state-led economic development, pointedly querying whether a Chinese-style model is appropriate for Africa’s future.

“In most African countries, it has been shown that state-led growth – pure state-led growth – has really not worked… Some of our governments, when they get into direct provision of jobs and services – that’s where corruption creeps in because it’s not well-handled, the institutions of state are not strong enough, the checks and balances are not strong,” she told CNBC.

Hailed by economic planners across the continent as offering the bright future that the continent desperately needs, the “Chinese development model”, such as it is, promises rapid economic development and job creation, shepherded by a powerful central administration and state-run development institutions which claim to act in the best interests of their people. Heavily touted in Rwanda, the model has perhaps found its greatest expression in Ethiopia, where it is claimed that state-led development, massive infrastructure investment and tightly controlled private sector involvement have helped to lift millions out of poverty.

Yet behind the talk of increased economic opportunity, improved infrastructure and an end to poverty, lies an implicit endorsement of the role of powerful party elites, a tendency towards utopian schemes, limited democratic participation, and authoritarianism. While Okonjo-Iweala’s critique focuses on the economic drawbacks of the Chinese model, the democratic deficit of such a future is likely to prove equally controversial.

Voting for democracy

Despite the enthusiastic backing of Africa’s governing elites, data from Afrobarometer suggests that political and economic models predicated on one-party rule will struggle to gain legitimacy and traction among African citizens. While Africa has a limited reputation for building robust democratic societies – US organisation Freedom House deems only 12% of sub-Saharan African citizens to be free – Afrobarometer’s data suggests that citizens across the continent nevertheless have a strong preference for democracy over authoritarian systems of governance.

According to data from 36 countries revealed at Chatham House in June, 78% of Africans reject both dictatorship and one-party rule, while 67% have a preference for democracy. Military rule is rejected by 73% of the population, while a poll of 20 countries found that 76% support presidential term limits, one of several ways to reign in would-be autocrats.

Perhaps most significantly, an overwhelming 80% of citizens believe that they should choose leaders through regular, open, honest elections – hardly an endorsement of the authoritarian state-led development beloved of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

“There are significant gaps between expectations and fulfilment in many areas of democratic governance. Demand for democracy outstrips perceived supply in a majority of countries, and delivery of responsive and accountable governance lags across many indicators,” reports the organisation.

Of course, the establishment of a successful one-party state is not dependent on the support of the electorate. Dozens of African governments manage to empower themselves while paying little heed to the wishes of their countrymen, persisting with fully authoritarian systems of government or establishing “managed democracies” where elections, independent institutions and a free media are proscribed. According to Afrobarometer, the continent’s overall perceived “supply” of democracy sits at just 35%.

Furthermore, data suggests that while broadly supportive of democracy, African citizens are not yet fully in support of all that this entails. Only 54% of citizens believe that the media should have the right to publish any views and ideas without government control. Perhaps more surprisingly, only 28% believe that opposition parties should monitor and criticise the government in order to hold it accountable.

Without a functioning media or opposition to hold governments to account, unpopular or inappropriate development models are liable to be foisted upon citizens at the whim of powerful politicians using the coercive instruments of the state.

African solutions to African problems

Yet recent events in Ethiopia suggest that politicians would be well advised to adopt a more cautious approach to the intertwined problems of democracy and development. The decision by the EPRDF, Ethiopia’s ruling party, to force through the unpopular Addis Ababa master plan – a bid to extend the capital into the tense Oromia region – sparked a furious backlash by regional protestors. After hundreds were killed, jailed and injured in demonstrations, Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn was forced to scrap the master plan and resign from power. His replacement, the reform-minded Abiy Ahmed, appears to have absorbed the difficult but necessary lessons of the past few years. 

Ahmed has promised to open up previously restricted areas of the economy, including airlines and telecoms, to the private sector. On tours to the unsettled Oromia and Somali regions, he has met with opposition figures and pledged to expand consultations on democratic reform. 

Few would argue that African governments should not pursue ambitious, integrated and energetic development plans. And in some cases, democratic niceties may necessarily give way to the exigencies of rapid economic improvement. But with Africans ever more contemptuous of one-party and dictatorial rule – support for both models declined between 2002 and 2015 – other countries on the continent would do well to listen to Okonjo-Iweala’s cautious response and look to Ethiopia before heedlessly barrelling forward with an authoritarian development model – regardless of how well it has worked in China.

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