Democracy in a dangerous world
Kez Exley | 12 December 2016

In December 2010, a self-immolation by an angry man in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring. The Western world was delighted. Decades of coercion and attraction by the ‘developed’ world has paid off. Democracy is taking the world by storm.


The last 30 years has seen a newfound enthusiasm for elections. In 1975, 30 states elected their government whilst in 2005, 89 more states had leapt onto the bandwagon; now over half the global population lives in a ‘democracy’. Freedom became reality in the Western world. The rest fell further behind. The democratic façade was perfected by the aid reliant in order to keep donor money flooding in. The poor became poorer, the rich grew richer whilst the West patted themselves on the back. Democracy should be both a right and a privilege, but not in this dangerous world.


In middle-income countries, democracy promotes peace and stability. In the developing world, it makes society much more dangerous. Paul Collier, a leading thinker on development, has calculated that the threshold at which democracy increases stability is $2,700 USD per individual per year, or $7 a day. To put this into perspective, nearly half the global population lives on less than $2 a day, making democracy unfeasible in most societies.


The rich and prosperous preach their developmental package. It is aid and democracy. The money flows in, along with the words carved into the bedrock of American thinking; ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’. In contrast, for the developing world, ‘government of the people, by a good-but-powerful-and-autocratic leader… for the people’ is probably best. But how feasible is this good-guy? Will the power go to their head?


Rwanda can put this thesis to the test. It is a tiny, land-locked state in Sub-Saharan Africa. Centuries of tribal and colonial violence culminated in genocide in 1994, killing 800,000 people. Rwanda has a ‘democratic’ leader, ex-rebel commander Paul Kagame, who has been in power since 2000. In 2012, it was rated the third best state in Africa to do business with. Between 2006 and 2011, over 1 million people, were lifted out of poverty. 4G internet will be available to 95% of Rwandans over the next three years due to a lucrative investment from a South Korean communications giant (ironically, a higher percentage of the Rwandan population are projected to have access than those in London’s Green Belt!). But most importantly, 83% of the population lives on less than $2 a day.


In terms of press freedom and human rights, the statistics are not so great. ‘Democratic’ Rwanda, which allows elections but no genuine choice, has the 161st worst press in the world, behind even Zimbabwe, according to the pressure group ‘Reporter’s Without Borders.’ On the 13th January, in the light of the assassination of a Rwandan opposition figure in South Africa, Kagame threatened his enemies. Anyone who dares to oppose will face ‘consequences’… However, the authoritarian measures used to control opposition have also been employed in tackling development. Without the ability to enforce domestic and foreign development policies with vigour, the country would be off the pace. Democracy would not allow this to happen; compromise between 10 million people takes time. In 2014, benevolent dictators are better than their powerless alternative. Finding the ‘good-guy’ might not be so hard after all.


Sub-Saharan Africans are arguably the most patronised peoples on Earth. They are portrayed as a backwards monoculture, the personification of all that is uncivilized. For centuries the colonialists, neocolonialists and ‘do-gooders’ (thanks Bono), have imposed their institutions and culturally alien ideologies on Africa. It doesn’t work. If given a choice, food and water or the vote, the West might find themselves dissatisfied with democracy too: in 2000, 60% of those polled in 18 African states were satisfied with their democratic systems, in 2007 that figure was only 45% and it is falling.


Without a system, the benevolent dictator is leading his flock down a rocky path. But again an alternative has been provided, and again, democrats have brushed it under the rug. The West promotes private capitalism, liberal democracy and prioritized political over economic rights in development. In order to deliver on living standards like food, education and healthcare, China offers something very different: state capitalism, de-emphasised individual rights and prioritised economic rights. The alternative proposed by the Chinese led much of the developed world to its present position. It is more appropriate for the starving.


Britain did not develop into a democracy overnight: we developed organically and very slowly as we progressed economically. Democracy is not a preface to the tale of development; rather it is the conclusion to the story. The developing world is diverse. If the West wakes up from its daydream, maybe democracy can save its reputation before it is too late.


In Tunisia, the burning man had a point. With a GDP per capita of $4,237 per person, democracy is viable. Democracy is safe to spread, but not before economic prosperity. For Rwanda, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Bangladesh, there are bigger problems. Hopefully, with enough decent dictators and savvy Chinese economic policies, true democracy isn’t too much to hope for in this dangerous word.

James Routledge 2016