World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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DEVELOPMENT: Economic Growth or Democracy - A Difficult Choice

By Lewis Machipisa

STOCKHOLM, Jun 13 (IPS)- Is the developing world poor because it is not democratic or is it undemocratic because it is impoverished?
''Democracy is difficult to build on empty stomachs,'' Adebayo Olukoshi, a research programme coordinator at the Nordic Africa Institute in Sweden, says in a newsletter of the International IDEA.

According to Olukoshi, democracy that does not deliver material benefits is useless.

Olukoshi's views were shared at an international forum titled 'Democracy and Poverty: A Missing Link?' held in Stockholm, Sweden last week.

Some 100 politicians, policy-makers, donors, academics, Non Governmental Organisations representatives and United Nations officials, from around the world, attended the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)'s Fifth Democracy Forum.

Participants to the conference noted that effective governance is often the missing link between anti-poverty efforts and poverty eradication.

While there are some undemocratic countries that have managed to alleviate poverty, that choice is not open to many countries.

A report on Democracy and Poverty covering four regions, the former Soviet Union, South Asia, Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa, prepared for the Democracy Forum, shows that poor people associate poverty with the emergence of democracy.

The report described the state of democracy in the region as 'a facade that imitates democracy' and 'a show of elections'. It said for the ordinary person, democracy was considered to be the 'reason for all problems, the cause of unemployment and poverty'.

However, generally, participants to the forum agreed that there is no acceptable alternative to democracy, even if it may not be operating properly and as satisfactorily as the people would want.

They agreed that there must be a strong commitment towards democracy and this must be reflected in the elimination of corruption in all forms and removal of discrimination, including that against children.

The forum heard that despite the fact that there are now more democratically elected governments in the world, global poverty is on the increase.

Democracy, as a poverty alleviation method, has a poor performance record in the provision of rights and resources to the majority of people living in developing countries.

Some 1.5 billion people live on less than one US dollar per day while nearly a billion people are illiterate and almost a third of the population in the developing world, is not expected to survive to the age of 40.

The World Bank says that worldwide total of people living on less than one US dollar a day has increased from 1.2 billion people in 1987 to 1.5 billion people today.

If current economic and population trends persist at the alarming rate of poverty expanding at a rate of 25 million people per year, this figure will reach 1.9 billion people by 2015.

''We are not saying that democracy is a panacea for all ills of poverty,'' said Bengt Save-Soderbergh, International IDEA's secretary-general.

''But democratic values and institutions help draw public attention to pressing needs of the poor. This involves going beyond building and reforming democratic institutions.''

International IDEA's objective is to promote and advance sustainable democracy worldwide and to improve and consolidate electoral processes. The organisation believes that the answer to alleviating poverty may lie, in part, in linking poverty eradication with democracy promotion.

''In reality there is nothing fundamentally incompatible between a basic faith in democratic politics and the desire to ensure that democracy is enriched through the enhancement of everything from basic citizenship rights to impoverished social livelihoods,'' says Olukoshi.

''This is especially, but not exclusively, relevant for the countries of the developing world, where mass poverty and related problems of violent conflict and corruption are among the principal issues that continue to pose serious challenges to the democratic project,'' says Olukoshi.

In Africa, as in Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, politicians have recognised that popular enthusiasm for, and participation in, democratic politics is in danger of being truncated by the grim and daily struggle for survival, says Olukoshi.

Meghnad Desai, of the London School of Economics, says pursuit of growth which puts people at the centre and allocates more money to health care and literacy than to armies and parastatal structures, all invoke the necessity of governance that is human development enhancing.

''Historically, governments have not been friends of the poor, indeed, very much the opposite. Governments have normally been part of the structures of power and inequality that have oppressed the poor rather than helped them.

The growth of democracy in the 20th century has begun to change this. Governments are increasingly exposed to public scrutiny and need to renew their mandate to gain public support at periodic elections. Even now, structures of governance are barely friendly to the poor,'' said Desai.

The well-off still have the resources -- intellectual and financial -- to capture the state and government policies to serve their purpose.

''Good political governance is at the heart of the relationship between poverty and governance,'' he says.

But ''there is still a lingering debate about the virtues of authoritarian rule in the removal of poverty, but such debates define poverty only in terms of material consumption levels, neglecting human rights''.

While there are successful examples of one party democracies in alleviating poverty -- China being the leading instance if not the only one -- it is not a choice open to many countries,'' said Desai.

''Governance, in many ways, has to first avoid exacerbating the problem that poor households face. The conflicts inherent in any society between the rich and powerful groups and the poor must be understood.

"There is no natural harmony in societies. Democracy is a weapon in favour of the poor but it is has to be deployed with imagination... what is important is that governance should not make their lives worse, but try and make them better,'' noted Desai.

''Democracy is no vaccination against poverty. Good governance is pro-poor governance which means accountability and transparency,'' said Cassam Uteem, president of Mauritius who also addressed the Democracy Forum.

''If there is no democracy and accountability, poverty alleviation programmes are unsuccessful. They can't take off the ground,'' said Uteem. ''Officials must be made accountable between elections.''

While accountable governance may not rapidly reduce poverty, or stimulate development, noted Said Adejumobi of the centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town in South Africa, it will create a context for the empowerment of the poor.

''Empowerment will allow the poor an opportunity to reorganise their lives, tap the avenues and possibilities available within the state structure and participate in the development process, said Adejumobi. (END/IPS/lm/sm/00)

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