Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ibrahim rings alarm bells on African democracy

With his recent survey of Africa's governments, Mo Ibrahim warned that some areas of governance have not improved in the last couple of years. The Ibrahim Index of Good Governance survey found that economic development and quality of life is improving in Africa. However, the survey has found that the areas of human rights, safety, and rule of law seem to be in decline or stagnant.

From the Guardian, writer Jonathan Glennie has this comment on the survey results.

With all this data and credibility at his fingertips, Ibrahim has chosen this moment to "ring alarm bells on democracy". The progress witnessed across the continent in recent years is slipping, according to his figures. Countries doing better economically, but where these alarm bells need to be sounded, include Gambia, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and Madagascar.

Worryingly, some African leaders can be heard muttering about a trade-off between development and rights, citing "the Chinese model".

There is certainly some truth in the idea that strong but not necessarily democratic government can be good for development, while participatory democracy can create problems. But it is worth remembering Matthew Lockwood's useful maxim (in his excellent book The State They're In): "Authoritarian rule seems to produce developmental outcomes that are either very good or very bad; democratic rule tends to languish in the middle". In Africa, it is hard to find an example of authoritarian rule that has achieved "very good" outcomes, though there are many examples of the opposite.

The key is accountability. Ibrahim makes the slightly exaggerated but nonetheless compelling claim that "poor governance is the only reason for slow progress" in Africa. The development of representative government in most countries in the world has been the most important means of allowing poor people more power over decisions that affect them – the power to vote for someone else, or the opportunity to meet and influence their representatives.

It would be a grave mistake to believe that because Africa has progressed economically and developmentally in the past decade, that is the only trajectory available to it in the future. On the contrary, shocks and struggles for power, often to do with resources, are more than likely to challenge this direction.

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