“Economic development makes democracy possible” asserts the U.S. State Department’s Web site, subscribing to a highly influential argument: that poor countries must develop economically before they can democratize. But the historical data prove otherwise. Poor democracies have grown at least as fast as poor autocracies and have significantly outperformed the latter on most indicators of social well-being. They have also done much better at avoiding catastrophes. Dispelling the “development first, democracy later” argument is critical not only because it is wrong but also because it has led to atrocious policies-indeed, policies that have undermined international efforts to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.
Countries often remain poor precisely because they retain autocratic political structures believe that a development-first strategy perpetuates a deadly cycle of poverty, conflict, and oppression.
Development Indicators from 1960 to the present, reveal a simple truth: low-income democracies have, on average, grown just as rapidly as low-income autocracies over the past 40 years. Outside of eastern Asia (about which more will be said later), the median per capita growth rates of poor democracies have been 50 percent higher than those of autocracies.
Moreover, because 25 percent of the worst-performing authoritarian regimes, including Cuba, North Korea, and Somalia, have failed to document their performance, the growth shortfall for autocracies is even larger than the available data indicate.
People in low-income democracies live, on average, nine years longer than their counterparts in low-income autocracies, have a 40 percent greater chance of attending secondary school, and benefit from agricultural yields that are 25 percent higher. The latter figure is particularly relevant because some 70 percent of the people in poor countries live in the countryside. Higher levels of agricultural productivity mean more employment, capital, and food. Poor democracies also suffer 20 percent fewer infant deaths than poor autocracies. Development practitioners should pay particularly close attention to these figures because infant-mortality rates capture many features of social well-being, such as prenatal health care for women, nutrition, quality of drinking water, and girls’ education.
Since 1960, poor autocracies have experienced severe economic contractions (falls of 10 percent or more in annual GDP) twice as often as poor democracies. Seventy percent of autocracies have experienced at least one such episode since 1980, whereas only 5 of the 80 worst examples of economic contraction over the last 40 years have occurred in democracies. Consider Chile. Although often touted as a model of autocratic growth for its 13 years of economic expansion during Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year rule, Chile also suffered two acute economic crises during this time: a 12 percent decline in GDP per capita in the mid-1970s and a 17 percent contraction in the early 1980s. It took until the mid-1980s for Chile to sustain a per capita income level higher than that of 1973, the year Pinochet seized power.
Poor democracies have, on average, not run higher deficits over the past 30 years than poor autocracies. Similarly, both poor democracies and poor autocracies spend almost the same on education and health. Democracies have just used their resources more effectively. Not coincidentally, low-income democracies typically score between 15 to 25 percent stronger on indices of corruption and rule of law than do autocracies.
87 largest refugee crises over the past 20 years originated in autocracies, and 80 percent of all internally displaced persons in 2003 were living under authoritarian regimes, even though such systems represented only a third of all states.
Poor countries fall into conflict often-about one year in every five since 1980. But poor democratizers fight less frequently than do poor authoritarian nations. In sub-Saharan Africa, where most civil conflict has occurred recently, countries undergoing democratic reform have experienced armed conflict half as often as the norm in the region.
Poor democracies outperform authoritarian countries because their institutions enable power to be shared and because they encourage openness and adaptability.
Although exceptional cases exist, it is the preponderance of experience that should guide development policy. And the overall evidence is overwhelming: poor democracies have had a consistent development advantage over poor autocracies over the past 40 years.
All in all, then, democracies present an enormously powerful set of institutions that propel development. The more representative, transparent, and accountable those governmental processes, the more likely policies and practices will respond to the basic priorities of the general population.
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