The Chicken or the Egg: Which Comes First, Democracy or Good Governance?

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) released a policy brief in September 2013, that lists four reasons why democracy in development is going to matter in 2015 after the Millennium Development Goals expire.

1. It’s what the people want

2. Democratic political institutions enable sustainable development

3. Democracy is the political systems which allows inclusion and equality

4. Democracy best ensures accountability, transparency and rule of law

On February 6-7, the UN Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) met to discuss the role of democracy in the post-2015 development agenda and how to measure democratic governance.

It appears that the working group was struggling to determine whether or not democratic governance should be a stand alone goal, or a goal incorporated into other facets of sustainable development. It is also important to note that the working group makes a distinction between democracy and governance, questioning whether one is more important than the other.

After reading a publication by International IDEA on development and democracy, the question of governance or democracy stuck with me. While democracies are enablers of social and economic development and possess values and principles including equality, inclusion, participation, responsive and accountable institutions, human rights, and access to the law, I still advocate that good governance should be sought after first and foremost.

Democracies, especially young democracies, are at risk for serious backsliding in their initial years. This could potentially be the result of weak and unknown institutions that are not providing what they agreed to quick enough. Hopefully once systems of good governance are in place and have a proven track record of generating social and economic development, democratic governance will commence. Finally, if it is the right system for a country, democratic governance can transition into a full on democratic system.

While the Working Groups and policy briefs focus on democracy being the best option and what the ‘people’ want, are they jumping to the end without thinking about the means of getting there and sustaining it? Should donor organizations be focusing on democracy promotion, or is focusing on good governance the smarter, more effective place to start?

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5 Responses to The Chicken or the Egg: Which Comes First, Democracy or Good Governance?

  1. liasor101 says:

    This policy brief is great because it confirms an international stance that supports democracies. It did leave me with two questions. The first is, how does one go about figuring out whether a democracy is the right system for a country? This interests me because if we identify a set criteria or even accept the idea that there are countries best fit for democracies, it implicitly means that Democracies are not for every nation. Secondly,I feel like I there has been an increase in recent history of nations that use the word democracy as a coat that they wear on the outside to prevent international pressure but if we look inside these nations they meet about 2 to 3 of the criteria for being called a democracy. What are your thoughts on this?

  2. findleyjn says:

    To answer your first question, I don’t necessarily think a democracy is the right system for all countries, but I do get the feeling that western donors believe in one size fits all and that that one size happens to be democracy. As for the second statement on democracy being a worn coat to prevent international pressure, I agree with you. We talked a lot about this in our African Security class in the fall and I believe that 1. state sovereignty is more of a coat than anything because there is a universal understanding that you don’t mess with a state’s sovereignty, and 2. a lot of the conditions that donor agencies (IMF, World Bank) place or have placed on African nations regarding democracy are loosely enforced and pretty rarely implemented. In short, I agree with you!

  3. cjforster says:

    This post is a good summary of some of the current challenges facing the international community when examining the twin issues of state building and democracy promotion. The issues raised in the initial posting is a nice fit with the wider ‘Institutionalization before Liberalization’ debate started by Roland Paris in his 2004 book ‘At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict’. As is often seen in the case of post-conflict states, attempts to promote democracy before adequate institutionalization, can result in new forms of identity based conflict, particularly through the development of exclusive identity-based political parties and governing groups.

  4. In the case of many African countries, I think it’s important to consider not only democracy and good governance as potential tradeoffs (at least in the short term), but the critical “third” variable of clientelism. If democracy promotion is gradually able to break down clientelistic practices (as we hope), good governance may be absent in clientelism’s “void.” In democratizing states, service provision may have previously relied entirely on a clientelistic system. Good governance must thus be strengthened in advance or at least in tandem with continued democratization. Otherwise, interruptions in service provision risk backsliding toward clientelism.

  5. vcparham says:

    When it comes to topics of democracy and its contributions to improved governance in sub-Saharan Africa, I like to consider the opinions of the citizens who live there. Its one thing for external actors to enforce a form of governance on a population, but I think that if the majority of a population identifies democracy as the favorable approach, then they should be afforded the same opportunities that others have to choose their leaders.

    The Afrobarometer issues fairly consistent reports regarding the political opinions of Africa’s populations (it covers social and economic topics as well). I came across one recent briefing paper particularly relevant for this discussion. The paper reveals public attitudes regarding democracy and related issues across several sub-Saharan African countries. Each country in the study is considered to be a “high performer” in terms of democracy. I realize that every poll and survey is exposed to statistical flaws and biases, but nonetheless I think this paper provides some interesting comparisons and revelations in regards to how citizens view democracy. I also think it would be interesting to conduct a similar survey in countries with poor performing democracies and compare attitudes.

    I am having some technical difficulties linking the briefing paper to this post, but the title of it is, “Governance and Democracy Attitudes in Higher Performing African Countries.” (sorry about that!)

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