Democracy and Development: when freedom counts most (Part I)

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A recent article in the International New York Times describes the current frustration and disillusionment felt by many young Tunisians despite the freedom and democracy gained through the first revolution that kicked off, almost four years ago, a domino effect that passed in history as the Arab Spring.

Today, Sunday  the same youth, many of whom were so disillusioned with the politics in their countries that they were allured by Islamic radicals and went to fight in Syria, will vote for a parliament and soon after for a new president. Pollsters predict that old faces of the regime that lost power have a good chance to do well in the elections.

After all look at what is going on in Libya after the murder of Gadhafi with the country marred by internal conflict, a nation broken in two, two rival parliaments fighting for recognition and sovereignty over a failed state.

If there is a contentious issue at stake it is about the relationship between development and democracy. It is not a new question as it has been at the center of policy debates for decades especially after the crumble of communism.

We know well the benchmarks in this discussion: on one hand you have countries like China that, striving to develop itself as a nation, has postponed any political liberalization. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have countries that have fought hard for democracy, e.g. Nepal.

Between the two extremes you have countries like Singapore that, while not totalitarian, are run basically through a one party system that trumps on personal freedom.

The island state is indeed a very interesting case as it offers a model that fully abides to the general principles of rule of law but with the caveat of offering a much more limited space for various freedoms to its citizens. 

We are talking about a state of law but with the difference that the law there is not as “open” and inclusive as it should be if Singapore were a fully democratic state. Yet this “state of law minus” approach seemed to have worked out well.

Singapore has been very effective as it has been led by a technocratic regime composed of elite officials who studied in the best universities in the world, who are by far the best paid public officers in the world and know how to deliver. Among many, few of their biggest achievements have been the curbing of corruption and crime and the capacity to attract the best talent in the world (the later a policy that recently has being questioned by the locals).

Still there is no heaven on earth. Singapore looks like a paradise of efficiency but problems on the ground do exist.

Many Singaporean youth want to leave, people, according to international surveys, are not happy and definitely overwhelmed by a rigid, top down system. Only now is the Government talking about setting up some sort of welfare state that can care for its citizens while being very attentive at not creating any undue dependency, certainly an attempt that does not look at a European welfare state as a model.

For those reasons, the one party system is slowly losing ground and the opposition’s voice is getting stronger. Intellectuals and common citizens alike talk about reforms. The state in Singapore is getting more compassionate and understanding of its citizens but is still a long way before becoming fully democratic.

Are people happier with a more democratic system in place or happier when they can first enjoy personal prosperity? Are people happier in China or Singapore or in a country like Nepal?

There was a belief and hope in millions of youth from Cairo to Tunis to Sanaa and Damascus that democracy would have brought a net improvement in their lives.

Now looking at the current frustration experienced by the youth in Tunisia, it seems that happiness does not come automatically with the magic wand called elections.

Democracy can be conducive to development but many conditions must be in place to create opportunities of wellbeing for people. Elections alone and feeble institutions do not ensure any democratic “return” and whatever economic growth is achieved in the transition, hardly will people take any benefit out of it.


Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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