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Ignoring democracy weakens aid effectiveness

A recently launched publication, Development First, Democracy Later? by the International IDEA discusses the role of democracy on the development agenda. The writer of the publication, Anna Lekvall criticizes the “development first” –thinking, which has often been prevailing among development practitioners. According to this way of thinking, democracy will follow once a country gets a hold of economic growth and development, including reduction of poverty and better education and health care.

No effective development without democracy

The publication presents a set of convincing arguments for strengthening the democracy perspective. It argues that sustainable development cannot be achieved without prioritizing democratic ownership. Firstly, it must be taken into account that several studies from Arab- and Afrobarometers to an online survey collecting people’s views on the post-2015 development agenda show that people everywhere want democracy. However, according to the surveys, few are satisfied with the state of democracy in their country. Secondly, Lekvall writes that democracy also delivers. This is based on research data on differences between democratic and authoritarian states. In democracies, human welfare is higher and states are less likely to experience severe economic contractions, conflicts and catastrophes.

The often unsatisfying results of development aid also highlight the importance of democracy to development. For example, the impressive growth rates of many African countries have not correlated with reduction of poverty and inequalities. The fruits of growth are hence enjoyed only by few, and development aid has not ensured better welfare for the citizens. The main reasons for this are undemocratic governments and lack of real possibilities for citizens to participate in decision making. Politics determine how growth is created, wealth is distributed and public services are provided.

Development aid that does not take democracy into account is not only ineffective but can be detrimental as far as results and democratic ownership are concerned. At worst, aid to countries of hybrid or authoritarian regimes strengthen the power of the regime as state resources and institutions can be used to sustain power when there is a lack of accountability, checks and balances. Lekvall also points out that sometimes there has not been much else to do for governments than concentrate on maintaining their power as the international donors like the World Bank or IMF have prescribed the policy they must lead. Aid flows may also make governments more accountable to donors than to citizens. Also, the political parties of the aid recipient country have not always had a chance to develop their programs and formulate policies due to restricted political space and lack of opportunities to influence.

Democracy or good governance?

However, democracy is not completely absent on the aid agenda. Indeed, democracy and other related principles like ownership and good governance have been discussed among the development practitioners for at least twenty years. Lekvall describes the emergence of the ownership principle and, consequently, budget support to the development agenda with the Paris Declaration of 2005. Budget support, on the other hand, has raised critique related to corrupted or self-interested governments, and it is widely accepted among development practitioners that governance matters for aid delivery. Hence, good governance is quite often one of the objectives of aid.

According to the publication, the main problem has been understanding good governance as something technical, not political. In development cooperation, good governance has been a more popular term than democracy, and political institutions have rarely been regarded as key elements for better governance. The idea is that improving efficiency of governance contributes to better results in development. Unfortunately it may also mean strengthening the government in power instead of achieving the ideal kind of governance, which means zero improvements in inclusive, representative democracy.

Political parties, parliaments and electoral processes are essential for sustainable development, but especially political parties receive very little attention in development aid and even when it comes to strengthening good governance, writes Lekvall. One of the main reasons for this is reluctance to interfere in the domestic policy of the partner country in the bilateral negotiations where the guidelines of development aid are often agreed. Also, working with political parties is usually out of the comfort zone of donors. In spite of many ambitious programs and guidelines, trade, security concerns and foreign relations also tend to be prioritized. In addition, one of the major issues for not focusing on democracy is the “development first” thinking that persists among the development practitioners.

Many aid recipient countries have formal political institutions in place, elections are held and civil and political rights exist, at least on paper. However, the elections are not necessarily fair and institutions or citizens’ rights are not always respected. Donors often tend to underestimate these problems and their impact on aid effectiveness. Hence, there is a risk that development aid to undemocratic regimes sustains a repressive and exclusive system. Lekvall calls for more systematic analysis on how aid impacts on society, and for more focus on inclusive democracy that ensures citizens an equal access to decision making.

At the moment, support for political parties – the institutions that aggregate people’s demands and represent people – is less than one per cent of the official development aid, despite the fact that democracy is mentioned more and more in the programs and priorities of different donors.

International IDEA’s publication Development First, Democracy Later? is available online.

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