Is Development Incompatible With Democracy?

imagesWe are living in the digital age of growth with deprivation; we see affluence with poverty, globalisation with increasing restrictions on human mobility, growth with high inequality and vulnerability. We are witnessing unprecedented wastage of human and material resources on war and surveillance, expansion of repressive machines, high growth of private (in) security business. Most alarmingly, invisible government has taken over areas of vital importance. The big brother’s fascist sermon, ‘either with us or against us’, with the declaration of war on terror, has been shaping the global (dis)order. This model of democracy trickles down to different corners of the globe, promoted by the regimes that are fearful of people’s power and democracy. Intolerance and hatred appear as guiding principles of today’s ‘rule of law’ on a global scale.

Democracy cannot be reduced to periodic election; development cannot be reduced to GDP growth. It is very common to hear from ruling elites that, ‘democracy needs to be sacrificed in order to achieve development goals’. In Bangladesh, the pattern of development mainly follows primitive forms of accumulation that include widespread corruption, rent seeking, illicit business of arms, drug and human trafficking, grabbing of common property, commission-based bad deals with foreign and local big companies, bank loan defaults and resource outflow. There is no doubt that all forms of primitive accumulation can contribute to GDP growth but put long term development potential of the country in danger. This nature of “development” asks for squeezing democratic rights, replacing institutions by vested interest groups. The law and the state become crude instruments for capital accumulation. “demoncracy”, instead of democracy, rises. Therefore, mal-development and “demoncracy” grow together.

A few years ago, UNESCO, the only organisation in the United Nations system whose constitution refers to democratic principles, set up an International Panel on Democracy and Development (IPDD), in order to examine and study the debates on relationships between democracy and development, taking representatives from all regions of the world. The committee inquired about international democracy as well as domestic democracy, since these two are interlinked.

The report defined democracy as a system where:

* The whole of society can participate, at every level, in the decision-making process and keep control of it.

* Full observance of human rights, as defined by both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Vienna Pacts and Declaration of 1993.

* Ensure rights and the respect of differences and of freedom of speech and thought.’

* Existence of an independent judicial system and free media.

* Power to legislate exercised by representatives of the people. The holding of free and fair elections by universal suffrage is a necessary, though not in itself sufficient, a precondition for the existence of a democratic regime.

The report therefore stated democracy “as a political system that is capable of correcting its own dysfunctions” . . . that also “needs to be embodied in a culture, a state of mind that fosters tolerance and respect for other people, as well as pluralism, equilibrium and dialogue between the forces that make up a society.”

On the analysis of development, panel members were unanimous in asserting that development should be understood to mean the whole range of economic, social and cultural progress which was marked by a series of major international conferences on environment (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), human rights (Vienna, 1993), population (Cairo, 1994), social development (Copenhagen, 1995), women (Beijing, 1995) and habitat (Istanbul, 1996). Development cannot be sustained by pushing up GDP alone.

In another study, Pranab Bardhan of the University of California in Berkeley examined the complex relationships between democracy and development. He discussed in detail the experiences of “authoritarian states” and their achievements in development goals. The East Asian success story in development over the 1960s, 70s and 80s has been referred as case studies by many for putting development against democracy. It is claimed that authoritarianism made it less difficult for the regimes in East Asia to implement necessary policies.

Bardhan, however, pointed out that “authoritarianism is neither necessary (even in East Asia, post-war Japan has successfully insulated parts of the bureaucracy without giving up on democracy), nor sufficient (even in East Asia, the dictatorship of Marcos in the Philippines is an uncertain prospect of a share in a larger pie)”. He also referred other instances of “authoritarian regimes like the Duvaliers in Haiti, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Somoza in Nicaragua, Mobutu in Zaire,” and so on, “who systematically plundered and wrecked their economies for excruciatingly long periods”. In contrast, he stressed that in South Korea and Taiwan, initial conditions were much more favourable to the ruled (with land reforms and expansion of mass education).

The present Bangladesh regime, despite plunder-friendly policies and high corruption and grabbing, uses the rhetoric of “the spirit of the Liberation War” as its shield. The spirit of the Liberation War means people’s power, equality, democratic institutions, and the sovereign authority of people over the country’s resources and decision making process, democratic practices within party and society. We have seen different regimes in the last decades, who have similar records in plundering, grabbing common property and land of religious and ethnic minorities, as well as in corruption, violence, extra judicial killings and so on. This relay race has reached its worst phase now, both in the areas of “democracy” and “development”. At this point, people are even deprived of their voting rights.

Therefore, we have many reasons to be worried for our present and future. Our major concern, for our country as well as globally, include the following:

– Grabber-friendly state. The state is visibly becoming an instrument of power and accumulation for an oligarchy.

– Increasing militarisation, expansion of surveillance, invisible machine to rule.

– A large section of media and intelligentsia embedded to commercialism and power.

– Erosion of institutional capability to protect public interest.

– Corporatisation of NGO and civil society.

– A form of privatisation of law enforcing agencies and administration.

– Commercialisation of security system.

– Irreparable damages or destruction of environment, grabbing rivers, wetlands and open spaces in the name of development. Violence follows.

– Manufacturing of consent for repression, torture, harassment and even killing.

– State sponsored killing in the name of crossfire, disappearances, illegal arrest and harassment become everyday news. Law and legal process has become a hostage to mafia groups.

In this situation, we need to activate our energy to stand against fear of terror, plunder, monopolisation of power and grabbing of people’s resources to bring people’s political and economic rights in the centre of politics. We need to reclaim our rights as citizens of the country. We need to raise our voices for both democracy and real development. Nothing less can save us.

(Published in The Daily Star on 21 October 2015)