Democracy or autocracy: Which system is more development-friendly?

Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2011

Bonn, 21.06.2011


German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) in cooperation with Deutsche Welle

From 20 until 22 June 2011, the fourth Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2011 - Human Rights and Globalization took place in Bonn with more than 1,500 participants from 95 countries. The German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) hosted the Panel “Democracy or autocracy: Which system is more development-friendly?”.

Recent events in the Middle East seem to confirm the hypothesis that autocratic order does little good for economic development as regimes tumbled, whose uncontrolled elites have plundered their populations for decades.

Yet, many developing countries are looking with admiration to a number of countries governed by autocratic rule, such as China or Singapore, since these countries have been able to cope well with the global financial crisis and are performing well economically.

Jörg Faust, Head of the Department "Governance, Statehood and Security" at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) formulated the provocative thesis, that autocracies promise a reliable course of development, thereby boosting overall economic performance while, in contrast, democracies are slow in decision-making and prone to influence taken by powerful interest groups. Hence the question: Are autocracies better suited for the economic development of poorer countries than democracies?

Western role in democracy promotion is restricted to the support of indigenous democratisation movements
Markus Löning, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the German Federal Foreign Office, emphasised that this question cannot be discussed without paying attention to the factor of external parties involved in democratisation processes. This is especially the case beyond the background of the Arab revolutions. Can external parties, and in particular Western governments bring democracy to autocratic states? Löning’s answer is without doubt: No, they cannot. Western governments can only encourage civil agents to raise their voices and step in once there exists an indigenous democratisation movement. This is a lesson Western states had to learn the hard way from their interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Strive for democracy is not primarily a question of wealth but a question of being given (not only economic) perspectives
Aboubakr Jamai, founder and editor of the Moroccan weekly magazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire and the news website, underlined the importance of indigenous democratisation movements. Nevertheless, Jamai pointed out that as a matter of fact, by supporting authoritarian rulers Western governments discourage local democratisation movements. Jamai related the reasons for the Arab strive for democracy to his insights into the civil movements of the Arab spring. People fighting for democracy did not primarily do so to achieve a certain level of wealth, but in order to being given (economic, amongst others) perspectives for their lives. A lack of personal perspectives, in spite of any personal efforts deployed, provokes a strong sense of discontent. Autocratic rules are not able to channel this kind of discontent, while democracies can provide adequate intermediaries to do so. In this regard, democracy is clearly superior to autocracy.

Democracies are outperforming autocracies if it comes to development beyond economic growth
Todd Landman, Professor of Government and Director of the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution at the University of Essex, shone a light on empirical evidence on the development performance of democracies and autocracies. It shows clearly that democracies do not outperform autocracies if it comes to economic growth - though, they do not perform worse than autocracies. Democracies do outperform autocracies if development is measured in broader terms, e. g. including factors as infant mortality, education levels or life expectancy. These empirical results strongly endorse normative statements in political science supporting democratisation.

In essence, the panel concluded: First, democracy as a political order is superior to autocracy regarding broader measurements of development beyond economic growth. It therefore opens up more possibilities to individuals to shape their lives in their own self-determined way. Speaking in general terms, democracy is able to provide for public goods essential for individuals in their strive towards achieving a good life by deploying their personal means. And second, successful democracies can only be built on strong domestic and local movements. They cannot be imposed by external parties. Nevertheless, external actors – and regarding democratisation especially the Western (democratic) state-actors –, can indirectly discourage or encourage indigenous democratic movements by publicly highlighting their support or opposition to autocratic rulers.

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Bonn, Plenarsaal