Return to Index

"Failed States and International Security:
Causes, Prospects, and Consequences"

Purdue University, West Lafayette
February 25-27, 1998

Democratization in the Third World
The Role of Western Politics and Research

Georg Sørensen
Department of Political Science
University of Aarhus

DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
Tel: +45 8942 1133
Fax: +45 8613 9839

1. Introduction

With the end of the Cold War came a period of massive and profound optimism concerning the prospects for democracy in the Third World. [1] As we approach the end of the twentieth century things look less bright. Are we in the early stages of a comprehensive setback for democracy in the Third World? What has been the role of Western countries in the processes of political transition? This paper begins with an overview of achievements and shortcomings of processes of democratization in the Third World. I demonstrate that many Third World countries have experienced the opening stages of a transition process to democracy. I go on to argue that a large number of countries are stuck in the initial phases of a democratic transition. No comprehensive setback for democracy is in the cards, but there are no prospects for any substantial democratic progress either. My discussion of this focuses on Africa. Although the process of democratization is by nature first and foremost a domestic, internal affair, international actors have contributed to this unfortunate state of affairs. My attempt to spell this out focuses on three factors: (a) the failure to appreciate the role of nationalism and political community; (b) the overemphasis on liberalism, first economic (reliance on the market) and then political (reliance on the ballot box and accountability); (c) the emphasis on elitism (i.e., the tendency to support elite-dominated democracies). Some of the problems are related to national interests: Western countries pursue their own agenda, irrespective of the broader consequences for democracy. But some of them are also related to the inability of research to properly spell out what the best policies and most appropriate measures are. Indeed, research on governance and development appears to move in odd phases that are contradictory more that cumulative: a few years ago, emphasis was on a strong, developmental state and with a view to the East Asian success stories it was implied that such a state was also (soft) authoritarian. Now the emphasis is on democracy and accountability and it is implied that democracy per definition creates a stronger, more developmentalist state.

In examining the travail of democracy in the Third World, this paper is a contribution to the `transitology' research on processes of democratization. Within that general context it is a main aim to discuss the relationship between processes of democratization and processes of state strengthening, meaning the creation of more developmentalist states, better capable of pursuing economic and social development. It is an underlying assumption that without this connection between democratization and increased state strength, the development of democracy itself will be severely constrained. As for terminology, I employ the standard definition of democracy developed by Dahl. Political democracy is a system of government that meets the following conditions:

  • Meaningful and extensive competition among individuals and organized groups (especially political parties) for all effective positions of government power, at regular intervals excluding the use of force.
  • A highly inclusive level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies, at least through regular and fair elections, such that no major (adult) social group is excluded.
  • A level of civil and political liberties - freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom to form and join organizations - sufficient to ensure the integrity of political competition and participation (Diamond et al. 1988:xvi).

A reasonable operationalization of this definition is made in the index employed by Freedom House. Despite some caveats (Sørensen 1993:17) that index therefore provides us with a reasonable starting point for looking at democracy's progress (notwithstanding the critique by, eg., Bollen 1993).

2. Democracy at Century's End

The 1997 Freedom House survey of independent countries with more than one million inhabitants identified forty-nine countries as free. When countries with fewer than one million inhabitants were included (bringing the total number of states in the world to 191) the survey classified seventy-nine countries as free, fifty-nine as partly free, and another fifty-three as not free (Freedom House 1997).

The question whether such number constitute great democratic progress is a bit like the question whether the glass is half full or half empty. Yes, “the glass is half full”: there has been democratic progress in that past two decades. The democratic transitions began in Southern Europe in the 1970s; they came to include Latin America in the early 1980s and then Eastern Europe, Africa, as well as parts of Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There are more countries today than ever before with some measure of democracy. We may also note the ideological popularity of democracy. “Never in recorded history,” wrote Robert Dahl in 1989, “have state leaders appealed so widely to democratic ideas to legitimate their rule” (1989:313) and the trend in this direction has grown even stronger since then. Theorists who were earlier critical of democracy's potential now see it as the way forward; for example, a well-known Latin American scholar recently proclaimed that “democracy is the only path which Latin American countries can follow to modernity” (Weffort 1990:39). This statement is all the more remarkable when one recalls that a widespread mistrust of political democracy had been prevalent in earlier periods among the popular forces in Latin America. In Africa, the one-party system is no longer being supported as the ideal framework for consensual decisionmaking and for the promotion of economic and social development. Finally, in Eastern Europe, people no longer buy into the old official position that political leadership by what was understood to be the party of the masses, the Communist party, is infinitely more democratic than liberal democracy on the basis of a capitalist society. There appears to be only one major ideological opponent to the dominant idea of political democracy, and that is Islam, although the authoritarian project in China also should be mentioned.

In sum, the idea of democracy is presently very strong at the global ideological level. Very few authoritarian rulers would actively defend traditional, authoritarian modes of rule (North Korea and Iraq are possible examples). In the large majority of cases, authoritarianism is justified with reference to its supposedly positive sides of creating, e.g., order, stability, growth, and welfare. The `Tocqueville factor' is therefore at work on a global level: very few dictators believe that they have an inherent, legitimate right to be dictators. As one observer recently noted, “to live under autocracy, or even to be an autocrat, seems backward, uncivilized, distasteful, not quite comme il faut-in a word, `uncool'” (Nadia 1996).

Yet it is also clear that “the glass is half empty”: much of the democratic progress is only frail and shallow, a thin veil over political and social structures and institutions which have changed little since the days of authoritarianism. One scholar has reiterated a distinction made between the shallow `electoral democracies' and the more democratically developed `liberal democracies' (Diamond 1996; for one earlier introduction of this, see Brown 1996). `Electoral democracies' may hold periodical elections and thus demonstrate some measure of political competition, participation, and liberties; but parts of the population are most often kept out of the political process, the military and other important sections of states power are frequently closed off from democratic control, the media may be non-free, the courts may be corrupt and ineffective, and so forth. In short, elections take place, but democracy has not developed in most other respects. Examples of `electoral democracies' are Brazil, Burkina Faso, Congo, El Salvador, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Russia, Tanzania, Turkey, Ukraine, and Zambia.

While the number of `electoral democracies' has increased steadily, the number of more developed `liberal democracies' has remained almost unchanged. There were 76 `liberal democracies' in 1991 and 79 in 1996. In other words, elections are held in many countries, but the process of democratization is not moving forward; and at the same time, the quality of democracy has deteriorated in a number of countries with a long-term democratic experience: Venezuela, Colombia, India, and Sri Lanka. In sum, many of the democratization are of a restricted, elite-dominated variety, what Terry Lynn Karl (1990) has called “frozen democracies”, unwilling to carry out substantive reforms that address the lot of the poor majorities. Take Latin America, where one scholar has recently emphasized how the democratic transitions are developing into a hybrid form of democratic-authoritarian system which he calls “market authoritarianism”; in this system the trappings of formal democracy are retained and the tenets of market economics ... are generally followed. But in response to mounting social unrest rule is more by decree than consent, media critical of government is bullied and power is maintained through corruption, intimidation and, ultimately, by force (Payne 1996).

Economic reforms have worked in Latin America in the sense that they have brought some measure of stability and lower inflation; in that sense, the fundamental economic outlook is hopeful. But, as one observer has stressed, “the poor cannot eat fundamentals” (Economist 1996); income gaps are widening, the absolute number of people living in poverty is increasing; real wages have fallen and unemployment is higher than in 1990. An authoritarian takeover by the military is not likely; but military and police forces continue to hold privileged positions in the region; spending on security exceeds total welfare spending while political control of the military remains insufficient. Most courts are corrupt and inefficient and in many Latin American countries groups of police are a source of threat rather than a source of protection for the population.

Elite domination and increasing popular despair also characterizes Eastern Europe and in particular Russia. The old communist elites, the nomenklatura, have not blocked economic and political reforms; instead they have chosen another strategy: to exploit old positions and networks in transforming themselves into the new, market-oriented economic and political elite. Instead of preventing reforms, the old elites are swimming with the tide and popping up as owners of newly privatized companies, often acquired cheaply with the help of old friends. The old elite also continues to dominate state bureaucracies and in recent years it has regained political power with the help of newly formed, non-communist parties. Why do people vote for former communists? Because the communists promise to make people rich; “they represent success: more than any other identifiable social group in Eastern Europe, they are seen to have achieved the most in the new regime” (Applebaum 1996). Old communists no longer represent the past; they represent the successful capitalist future. What is the problem then? Is it not the ideal situation that the forces of the past are becoming the architects of the future? The problem is that only few of the new entrepreneurs are bearers of traditional capitalist virtues such as hard work, honesty, and responsibility. It is sooner a “corrupt business class which is intimately intertwined with a corrupt political class”; the result is some forms of robust private entrepreneurship, an enormous, gray market, and large companies, some state-owned some private, which enjoy deeply corrupt relationships with powerful politicians. Various forms of criminal mafia will dominate some parts of the region; politicians will come to “represent” various business interests, as they clearly do already, particularly in Russia (Applebaum 1996).

There are some positive elements in this otherwise gloomy picture of Eastern Europe. Economic and political relations with Western Europe are developing rapidly. The attraction of closer cooperation with the European Union will help prevent any across-the-board deterioration of democratic conditions. In that sense Eastern Europe's external environment is conducive to democracy. That is not the situation in South and East Asia. In China, economic growth rates remain high, but corruption among political and economic elites is an increasingly severe problem. Political repression of any dissident voice is swift and severe, including numerous executions. Corruption is a main problem in many other countries in the region as well, including Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

India has experimented with market oriented economic reforms in recent years and that has led to some increased economic dynamism. But benefits have not reached the some 400 million Indians who are poor; the resulting popular discontent is being tapped by Hindu nationalist parties. That has led to political fragmentation and bitter communal violence. India will not disintegrate as have some of the very weak African states, but Indian democracy has suffered in the process and the political scene in several Indian states is dominated by militant groups or even by criminal gangs, as in the case of Bihar.

The most spectacular setbacks for early and frail democratic openings have been in Sub-Saharan Africa, where ethnic violence in some cases has led to the breakdown, not merely of the sprinkles of democracy, but also of state authority altogether, as in Rwanda and Somalia. In several cases, the fragile democratic opening has itself fueled violent conflict as will be discussed below. In many African countries, the new, weak parliaments tend to become merely another player in the old, authoritarian system of personal rule. It should be emphasized, however, that with the exception of some African countries there has not been any comprehensive decay of democracy. This also applies on a more general level, encompassing the Third World and Eastern Europe. We are not facing a sweeping backslide to authoritarianism; the problem is sooner one of democratic consolidation; a very large number of the current transitions remain stuck in the shallow waters of `electoral democracy'. External actors bear some substantial responsibility for this unfortunate state of affairs.

3. The Role of Outsiders in Processes of Democratization

There are two principal views on the role of outsiders in processes of democratization in the Third World. The first is that democracy is basically a domestic affair and thus there is very little that outsiders can do about it, one way or the other. The second view is that most weak Third World countries are the puppets of stronger states in the North; the strong therefore heavily influence, not only the economic and social but also the political structures and processes of the weak. There is some truth in both of these views. But first, a longer historical look at the issue is helpful. What is `domestic' or `internal' as opposed to `international' or `external' is no historical given. Most Third World countries got their own domestic sphere at the point of independence, of decolonization. Before that, they were part of the domestic spheres of their colonial motherlands. That experience left them with features more or less conducive to the pursuit of democracy. Liberal modernization theory will normally stress the positive legacy: some local industry and infrastructure; an education system; a machinery for the upholding of order; an institutional structure; some basic rule of law; and a constitution which contained democratic values (Latin America, colonized by non-democratic Spain and Portugal, is of course an exception here). Radical dependency theory will stress the destructive elements of the colonial legacy: a distorted economic infrastructure, geared to the demands of the motherland; a hierarchical political system directed at control and surveillance, not at any form of democracy; an institutional structure aimed at order cum repression, not at participation and pluralism. The blend of `constructive' and `destructive' elements in the colonial legacy will of course vary across countries. Robert Pinkney has provided a very helpful overview of these variations in colonial rule as seen from the perspective of democratization (Pinkney 1993:42-3).

The advent of decolonization is often downplayed in radical analyses, with the argument that economic dependence continues exactly as before and the state institutions of the newly independent countries remain under foreign influence. This contention is profoundly misleading. Formal independence, that is, juridical sovereignty, is of the utmost importance. At the moment of independence a new political, economic, social, and cultural sphere is created which has some substantial amount of autonomy. This new `inside' or domestic sphere can still be influenced by external forces of course, but the conditions of operation are very different from before. On the one hand, there is a new need for finding domestic allies; that implies some sort of bargaining situation between insiders and outsiders. On the other hand, interventions in sovereign states cannot be conducted in complete ignorance of the rules of international society. After all, the basic norm of juridical sovereignty is non-intervention which means that acts of intervention have to be justified. So both in the domestic and in the international sphere the rules of the game changes in ways which provide increased autonomy to domestic actors.

After the advent of independence, external actors can either help or hinder democracy and democratization in specific countries. External actors have done both and we have a discussion similar to the colonialism debate, about which aspect—help or hinder—has been the dominant one. The current consensus on the issue appears to be this: during the Cold War the superpowers were first and foremost looking for allies in the Third World, caring little if the partners were democratic of not. The logic of power and national interest prevailed: `he's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch'. That logic could lead to US support for non-democracy in Chile, Guatemala, Zaire, and elsewhere. That the Soviet Union would support non-democracy in the Third World was less surprising given its own status as a totalitarian dictatorship.

The end of the Cold War has strengthened a trend already underway in US policy for some years: to emphasize the support for democratization and human rights. This goes hand in hand with a general tendency in international society to upgrade the support for liberal values. Radical critics reject that this is a real change; it is merely a fresh tactic employed by imperialist forces whose goals remain unchanged: subordination and control of the Third World (e.g. Moore 1996). I think there is more to it, including a real intention of promoting liberal values, although such policies are not conducted in a completely unselfish manner (I am not aware of any examples of national policies which have that quality). One problem in this context is that it is easier for external forces to prevent, hinder or block a process of democratization than it is to encourage, promote, preserve and protect that same process; the negative job is easier for outsiders than the positive one. What follows is not an attempt to analyze the support for democratization in empirical detail. Instead I want to take a look at three issues which are below the surface of day-to-day policy even though they significantly influence the ways in which these policies are conducted. The first issue is nationalism; the second is variants of liberalism; and the third is elitism. The aim of the exercise is to establish a connection between these issues and the lack of democratic progress in the Third World as diagnosed above.

4. Nationalism: Promoting and Obstructing Democracy

If nationalism is a bond of loyalty among the people that constitute a nation, then some measure of nationalism is a necessary precondition for democratization. That is because the nationalist bond of loyalty is the glue which ties the group of people inside the state's territory together; it helps create the minimum of national unity which is at the core of the political community that is the nation. As spelled out in Rustow's classic model, national unity simply indicates that “the vast majority of citizens in a democracy-to-be...have no doubt or mental reservations as to which political community they belong to” (Rustow 1970:350). There may well be ethnic or other cleavages between groups in the population; it is only when such divisions lead to basic questioning of national unity and political community that the problem must be resolved before a transition to democracy becomes feasible. National unity was an issue in India and Pakistan and is an issue today in the Third World, in particular in Africa. The problem is also present in Russia and Bosnia. Democratization demands a settling of the national question: Who are the nations that are going to democratize?

The issue will emerge elsewhere as well. For example, in China any process of democratization will have to settle the problem of Tibet's claim for autonomy. The question is also relevant for established democracies that have to confront crises concerning their national unity and political community: If these matters are not resolved in a democratic manner, the result will be the breakdown of democracy combined with repression of the minority group, or even civil war, as in the case of Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Chechnya.

Political community was created in Europe with the help of nationalism over an extended period of time. Territory came first; the state building elites first consolidated control over a territory and only in a later phase came the construction of a nation. This building of a national community was helped by two factors, one material the other non-material. The material factor was the welfare, security, and order provided by the state; the non-material factor was the idea of national community provided by mythology, interpretations of history, and ideology. Put differently, political community is based on two types of legitimacy: vertical legitimacy (the connection between state and society, the notion that the state elite and its institutions have a right to rule); and horizontal legitimacy, defining the membership and the boundaries of the political community of people (cf. Holsti, 1996). The nationalism of the nation-state thus contains two different elements of nationalism which coexist in harmony: a territorially based idea of Gesellschaft, the community of citizens within defined borders; and the ethnic idea of Gemeinschaft, the community of people defined by the nation.

The European idea of a nation-state was exported to the Third World. My discussion of this will focus on Africa, the region with the most severe problems in terms of political community, even though there are also serious problems in the Balkans. African states were created from the outside by colonial powers; the Declaration of Independence adopted by the UN in 1960 emphasized that "all peoples have the right to self-determination". But note that "peoples" does not mean communities of people such as nations. It means the territorial entities that were the colonies. Independence meant independence for the colonial territories, upholding colonial borders. The people inside those borders were communities only in the sense that they shared a border drawn by others. Their idea of nationalism was a negative one: get rid of the colonizers. When that project succeeded, there was no positive notion of community left over. Political elites made attempts to construct such a notion, eg. Nyereres Ujamaa socialism, Kenyatta's Harambee, and Mobutu's authenticité (Laakso and Olukoshi, 1996). There was some measure of success in a few countries, but in general the project was a huge failure: it was extremely difficult to knit together diverse ethnic groups with different languages, beliefs, and ways of living. And the state elites quickly gave up trying. What emerged instead was, in Chris Clapham's terminology, monopoly states: "Confronted by weak administrative structures, fragile economies, and in some cases dangerous sources of domestic opposition, political leaders sought to entrench themselves in power by using the machinery of state to suppress or coopt any rival organization-be it an opposition party, a trades union, or even a major corporation. Rather than acknowledging the weakness of their position, and accepting the limitations on their power which this imposed, they chose to up the stakes and went for broke" (Clapham 1996a:57). It was abundantly clear that these clientelist systems lacked "the capacity to create any sense of moral community amongst those who participate in them, let alone among those who are excluded" (Clapham 1996a:59). Therefore, political community was not created, neither in the Gesellschaft nor in the Gemeinschaft sense. The communities that prevailed were the different ethnic sub-groups which competed for access to state power and resources, sometimes building frail alliances amongst each other.

It is extremely difficult if not impossible to graft democracy upon countries lacking political community. On the one hand, if an election shall be seen as legitimate, then the state must clearly be seen as legitimate, and that is rarely the case in Africa; where there is a lack of horizontal legitimacy because of the absence of both the material and the non-material factors that created legitimacy in Europe. On the other hand, political liberalization opens for more, not less, conflict in society because of the lack of horizontal legitimacy (eg. Clapham 1996a; Holsti 1996; Mansfield and Snyder 1995).

The problem has not been properly confronted by Western politicians and researchers. For several years after independence, it was believed that the general process of modernization in all spheres of society would take care of the problem. The belief was predicated on the notion of "all good things go together"; modernization in one area would positively influence modernization in other areas. Eventually, modernization would root out the traditional, backward-looking values and attitudes. There are two problems with this view; on the one hand, it overestimates the synergetic effects of modernization; on the other hand, it downplays the extent to which the so-called "traditional" baggage has a role to play in the building of political community.

In research, the modernization view of the 1950s and 1960s was put on the defensive by dependency theory. The latter had little to offer, however, in analyzing the political community and nationalism issue in the Third World. It was more or less assumed that a severing of the ties to the old colonial master, the metropolises, would take care of the problem. In real politics, the problem was overshadowed by the priorities of bipolar competition. In much of 1980s, Western politics and research converged on the idea that a weakening of the state and a strengthening of the market would take care of the problem. That notion has not been validated by events and in the 1990s a more nuanced view has finally emerged in both politics and research, perhaps because the fragile processes of democratization have exposed the issue. At the same time, this new realism is accompanied by serious doubts as to whether a number of countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, are really viable entities when the issue of political community is brought in (e.g. Bienen and Herbst 1996; Sørensen 1996).

In sum, one of most serious problems hindering the process of democratic development in many Third World countries is the issue of political community and nationalism. Western politics and research has neglected the problem and currently appears to have few ideas about how to confront it in a serious way.

5. The Many Versions of Liberal Democracy

Liberal democracy is a big house with many rooms. This is due to the fact that liberalism developed in opposition to the medieval, hierarchical institutions, the despotic monarchies whose claim to all-powerful rule rested on the assertion that they enjoyed divine support. Liberalism attacked the old system on two fronts. First, the liberalists fought for a rollback of state power and the creation of a sphere of civil society where social relations including private business and personal life could evolve without state interference. An important element in this respect was the support of a market economy based on the respect for private property. The second element of early liberalism was the claim that state power was based not on natural or supernatural rights but on the will of the sovereign people. Ultimately, this claim would lead to demands for democracy—that is, for the creation of mechanisms of representation that assured that those who held state power enjoyed popular support. The tradition that became liberal democracy was liberal first (aimed at restricting state power over civil society) and democratic later (aimed at creating structures that would secure a popular mandate for holders of state power). Even when the focus was on democracy, the liberals had various reservations. They feared that democracy would impede the establishment of a liberal society (Therborn 1977:3).

In context of promoting liberal democracy in the Third World, the liberal tradition has been carried forward by Western countries in three different models of liberal democracy, drawing upon different aspects of the liberal heritage. The first model stresses the strictly liberal elements of liberal democracy, that is, a limited role for the state in an economy guided by market principles and open to international exchange. That is the version of liberal democracy behind the first generations of structural adjustment programs (SAPs), although the view is not expressed in these terms in the World Bank publications because the bank sees itself a neutral, non-political player. The state is viewed as a problem or a constraint rather than a positive player in economic, social and political development. The SAPs aimed at minimizing the role for the state in society, liberalize the markets, and privatize public enterprise. While the World Bank gave "a qualified yes" to the question of whether adjustment was paying off in Sub-Saharan Africa (WB 1994:131), an editorial in Codesria Bulletin a few years earlier was in no doubt that the liberalizations "completely undermines Africa's sovereignty, [and] creates and/or further strengthens authoritarian regimes who will have to implement an inherently anti-democratic set of socio-economic reforms entailed in the programmes" (quoted from Barya, 1992). A similar debate has taken place concerning the use of SAPs in Latin America.

There appears to be little doubt that structural adjustment has had some positive effects in a number of cases, especially in improving the conditions for agricultural production. It is equally true that the balance between market and state had tipped too much in favor of state in a number of countries and adjustment can play a constructive corrective role in such cases. But most of the time, the possible beneficial effects tended to be canceled out by the short- and medium-term negative effects of rapidly increasing prices, more unemployment, cutbacks in public services, etc. We tend to get the "market authoritarianism" mentioned above in addressing current democracy in Latin America: political and economic systems with some of the institutions and procedures of liberal democracy, but with very little to offer the poor majority whose everyday problems of mere survival remain a low priority on the political agenda.

The second model of liberal democracy that the West has supported put a greater emphasis on the political, participatory aspects of democracy. But in many cases, perhaps especially in Africa and some parts of Asia, focus has been on the notion of holding free and fair elections rather than on the broader political, cultural and institutional transformation connected with a process of democratization. There is no doubt than holding free and fair elections is an important element in a transition to democracy. But as an isolated event, the election is only the tip of the democratic iceberg. If it is not closely connected with deeper rooted changes it does not mean very much. A situation in Côte d'Ivoire provides an example. Felix Houphet-Boigny, who had been president for several decades, took the opposition by surprise in 1990 by quickly giving in to its demands for open presidential and legislative elections. In a country where there had not been opposition activity for thirty years, twenty-six political groups were summoned by the president and told about the forthcoming elections. Opposition requests for a delay in order to gain time for getting organized was rejected—the argument was that the demand for instant elections came from the opposition itself. As a result, the election could be controlled by the president's own party, which also had a large measure of control over the media. Both the president and his party scored comfortable victories at the elections.

Against this background, one may speculate whether the current pressure from Western donors for multiparty systems and political democracy in Africa can have counterproductive effects. The Western countries themselves are examples of the fact that democracy cannot be installed overnight; it is a long-term process of gradual change. When quick fixes of imposing multiparty systems, for example, are substituted for the long haul of patiently paving the way for a democratic polity, the result may be that a thin layer of democratic coating is superimposed upon a system of personal rule without major changes in the basic features of the old structure. According to Marina Ottaway, Western countries have tended to interpret democratization very narrowly as the holding of elections, and the sooner the better. But elections, or the prospect of elections, are highly destabilizing in countries threatened with collapse .... Elections appear to be the wrong place whence to start a process of democratization in a collapsing, conflict-ridden state. In recent years, African elections have typically been organized in a hurry, in some cases before parties had time to consolidate or armed movements had agreed to disarm. As a result, losers have found it easy to reject election results, and voters had little choice but to vote on the basis of ethnic or religious identity...Elections held under wrong conditions can be a real setback for democratization (Ottaway 1995:245; for a similar view, see Dahl 1992 and Elklit 1994)

The other major drawback of a democratization which focuses on elections is that there is little change for the better in the economic policies of the new regimes. A recent analysis found that "elections may actually increase the use of patronage... Traditional patron-client relations have often been critical in winning recent elections, indicating that the nature of African politics has not changed despite the new liberalization. Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya have all reported massive overspending as governments sought to reward traditional supporters, notably members of particular ethnic groups and civil servants, to smooth the transition process or gain votes...The particular circumstances of political liberalization in Africa cause leaders' horizons to be relatively short and therefore induce particular strategies such as clientelism which may be unnecessary where democratic structures are more institutionalized." (Bienen and Herbst, 1996:38-9).

Given the problems with the 'market model' and the 'election model' of democracy, at third model is currently gaining ground in Western theory and practice. It takes a broader view of the political and economic issues at stake in that it combines ideas about a state that is democratic in the sense of being responsive, legitimate, and under the rule of law, with ideas about a strong, developmentalist state, better capable of promoting economic and social development. This is a fresh turn in Western thinking; many observers used to see strong, developmentalist states as basically non-democratic, using the experience of the authoritarian developmentalist states in East Asia (South Korea and Taiwan) as the empirical argument. The tone for this debate was set by Chalmers Johnson's emphasis on the need for 'soft authoritarianism' which could provide political stability and order; the idea is that political pluralism which might challenge the goals of the developmental elite must be avoided. Japan showed the way in this respect, in displaying "an extremely strong and comparatively unsupervised state administration, single-party rule for more than three decades, and a set of economic priorities that seems unattainable under true political pluralism during such a long period" (Johnson, 1987:137).

Yet is was never quite clear that authoritarianism was a necessary element in a developmentalist state (Hamilton, 1987; Baeg Im 1987). And comparative analysis could quickly reveal that the special conditions surrounding a 'soft authoritarian' developmentalist state in East Asia were not present elsewhere, least of all in Africa. In other words, any attempt to make a general claim on the basis of the East Asian experience that authoritarianism will invariably help create a strong, developmentalist state must be rejected. The different variants of 'soft' and 'hard' authoritarianism found in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia have all failed to help generate a developmentalist state (Sørensen, 1993).

Against this background, more recent thinking among both scholars and practitioners in the West focus on the combination of the merits of a strong, developmentalist state and a more democratic, responsive state. This comes forward, for example, in the recent work by Merilee Grindle (1996). According to her analysis, a strong state in the developmentalist sense has the following capacities: Institutional capacity; technical capacity; administrative capacity; and political capacity where the latter includes legitimate authority and responsive and representative government (Grindle 1996). A similar view, in most respects, emerges the most recent World Bank report on the state in a changing world (1997): the bottom line of the analysis is that the state needs to be effective as well as responsive; i.e. developmentalist and democratic.

I believe that this time around Western sources must at least be credited for getting the analysis right: it is necessary to simultaneously push state effectiveness and democratic responsiveness. Finding powerful ways of doing so, however, is no easy task. The current agenda of 'good governance' appears to have several deficiencies in this respect, because it continues to scratch the institutional surface and not address the underlying problems. And in the short and medium run, the "effectiveness" part of good governance (cutbacks in public employment, hold expenditure in check, etc.) can work against the "legitimacy" part of more responsive government. According to one observer, the alternative to governance is to "look at the roots of legitimacy—the acknowledged right to command—both of states and institutions, without the fallacious assumption that certain institutions will always be seen as legitimate. The fundamental arbiter of state power is the strong identity of the citizen with the state. Without a strong sense of loyalty from followers, a leader's actions, goals and policies are not supported unless they are to the direct, clear and personal benefit of the followers... Throughout much of Africa, the level of aggregation into groups willing to give some amount of disinterested support to a leader is far lower than that of the whole state" (Kenny, 1997:11). In one sense, this takes us back to the problems addressed above, about nationalism and political community. At the same time, we are able to find cases where good governance programs have worked much better than in Senegal, the case addressed by Kenny (1997). I return to this issue below.

In sum, liberal democracy is no simple, straightforward entity. Three different models of liberal democracy have been pushed by the West in the Third World: the liberal market model, the election model, and the strong/responsive state model. The two former models contain serious weaknesses; the latter is attractive, but rather difficult to establish in practice, especially in the short and medium run.

6. Support for Elite-Dominated Democracy?

The final item I want to address is more straightforwardly political than the others. It rests on a distinction between elite-dominated and mass-dominated democracies (due to Karl, 1990). Elite-dominated democracies are systems in which traditional rulers remain in control, even if pressured from below, and successfully use strategies of either compromise or force—or some mix of the two—to retain at least part of their power. Mass-dominated democracies are systems in which mass actors have gained the upper hand over traditional ruling classes; they push for reforms from below, attacking the power and privilege of the elites. During the Cold War, support for traditional rulers took priority even over democracy. In the early 1960s in the Dominican Republic, a democratically elected government under Juán Bosch set out to promote economic development through nationalist economic policies that went against some American interests in the country. When Bosch faced the prospect of a military coup, Washington decided to opt for the authoritarian military dictatorship. John F. Kennedy set forth the alternatives as follows: "There are three possibilities in descending order of preference; a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime [a military dictatorship], or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we can't really renounce the second until we are sure we can avoid the third" (Quoted from Doyle 1983:335). Thus, fearing that the Bosch regime would develop into a Castro regime, the United States found it safest to back a military dictatorship.

The charge put forward by some observers is that the United States follows basically the same policies today, after the end of the Cold War, albeit with a new twist: the elites must support the basic rules of a liberal democratic game. The most thorough investigation making this point has been done by William Robinson (1996). He contends that: "All over the world, the United States is now promoting its version of "democracy" as a way to relieve pressure from subordinate groups for more fundamental political, social and economic change... The promotion of "low-intensity democracy" is aimed not only at mitigating the social and political tensions produced by elite-based and undemocratic status quos, but also at suppressing popular and mass aspirations for more thoroughgoing democratization of social life.." (Robinson, 1996:6). A similar charge has been put forward against France in context of that country's policies in Francophone Africa (Monga 1997).

Yet before finding the US, France, and perhaps other Western countries guilty of narrow support for elite-dominated democracies, the broader context of the issue must be considered. First, the distinction between elite-domination and mass-domination is less straightforward than it seems. Some administrations may have the support of both substantial factions of elites and of a majority in the population (e.g. Cardoso in Brazil; Mandela in South Africa) and such broad support may even be reflected in their policies. Second, democracy introduces a degree of uncertainty in the political process. It opens channels for popular pressure on the rulers. Even elite-dominated democracies may be pushed in the direction of more effective reform measures and in that sense more responsiveness to mass needs, as demonstrated for example, by the travail of democracy in Costa Rica (cf. Sørensen, 1993). Third, some of the measures backed by Western countries, for example as regards increasing the economic and administrative discipline of state elites in Africa square poorly with a notion of unremitting support for those same elites. After all, the whole notion behind structural adjustment was the idea that the political interests of the state elites was "the source of the mismanagement of the African economies, and any rectification therefore required that economic management be taken out of their hands and placed in those of the 'market'" (Clapham, 1996:812).

Taking this into consideration, I believe we end up with a soft version of the elite-support thesis. Western countries are likely to support administrations that (i) are liberal on economic policies including the support for economic openness toward the world market; (ii) respect private property including setting up an effective system of commercial law; (iii) whose leadership is oriented towards cooperation with the leading Western countries. In that sense there is an elite-orientation in Western support for democracy in the Third World. And although domestic forces are more important for the outcome, this support has helped sustain what Karl (1990) terms frozen democracies, that is, restricted, elite-dominated systems, unwilling to transgress the narrow limitations imposed on them by elite factions who engineered the transition to democracy in the first place. They are unwilling to carry out substantive reforms that address the lot of poor citizens. Both Latin America and Asia have a number of administrations that correspond to this description.

7. And Now the Good News ...

I have painted a rather bleak picture of the current democratizations in the Third World. Furthermore, I have pointed to the lack of political community, the various models of democracy promoted by the West, and to the notion of elitism as underlying elements which help explain the lack of sustained democratic progress, elements which donor countries have not adequately addressed. There are some positive factors which have not been given much attention above. In a number of Third World countries—generally those at the higher levels of socio-economic development—both political and economic reform are doing reasonably well. Yet the most encouraging items are sooner to be found in those countries that have achieved political and economic success despite being beset by some of the problems mentioned above, including a high potential for ethnic conflict because of many ethnic groups in the population and a rather low level of economic development at the time of independence. If we can explain why these countries have been successful in spite of the adverse conditions they faced, we may have some indications about how to get around the problems discussed above.

Two obvious candidates for further scrutiny in this respect are Botswana and Mauritius. On independence in 1968, Mauritius was a poor sugar-economy with deep ethnic cleavages in the population; Botswana was a cattle-economy with a population divided into eleven different tribes. The country had the good fortune of discovering diamonds on its soil, but several other African countries have had rich mineral deposits and still been unable to convert that potential into broader development. How could Mauritius and Botswana succeed economically and even be able to simultaneously establish functioning political democracies? A recent analysis is helpful in providing an answer to that question. Carroll and Carroll identify the following factors behind the political and economic success of the two countries:

the fact that talented political leaders were personally committed to democratic government, and to economic development; the creation of a competent, politically independent state bureaucracy with personnel policies based largely on merit, but with a composition that is reasonably representative of their societies; the development of a public realm that is capable of imposing at least modest checks on the actions of the state, and that is characterized by a balance between universalistic and particularistic norms, and by a pragmatic recognition of the important representative role of tribal/ethnic organizations and institutions (Carroll and Carroll 1997:470).

These are interesting and convincing answers to the question posed above; yet it is also clear that such answer begs new questions. Where do talented leaders committed to democratic government and economic development come from? As indicated by Carroll and Carroll, it is reasonable to assume that success cultivates success: once a competent leadership has been established and has demonstrated a decent track record chances are good that capable leadership will continue. But what about that crucial turn-around phase, where success is by no means secure and leadership might as well turn out to be narrow-minded, egoistic, and self-serving? What is it that brings forward the Mandelas and the Musevenis instead of the Mobutus and the Mois? If it is not pure coincidence then the question merits further research. The hopeful answer that such leadership is more or less automatically created by holding elections has not been confirmed by events. It should also be emphasized that good and honest leaders are not enough, especially if they are committed to bad policies. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania is an honest man who has done much good for the country, but his policies of a state-led economy and a basically non-democratic polity also led to disastrous results.

As for the second item, a good bureaucracy, it is clear that early decisions were made in both Botswana and Mauritius, not to sacrifice competence for `nativization' of the public service and to base recruitment on merit. At the same time, however, Carroll and Carroll stress that the Weberian ideal of an impartial public service probably should be abandoned when it comes to developing countries with many different ethnic groups in the population. In the two countries examined, care has been taken to make the bureaucracy representative of subgroups in society without sacrificing merit. Such a representative bureaucracy “is more likely to consider a wide range of views and interests in making decisions. Indeed, the simple existence of a representative bureaucracy if often taken by the public as evidence that the state is responsive and legitimate” (Carroll and Carroll 1997:473).

The third item above concerns the need for a civil society to constrain the state. In many poor Third World countries there is no civil society in the traditional Western sense of the word. At very low levels of development, there is no business class, no middle class, not even a well defined class of peasants. Partly as a consequence of this, there are few autonomous, strong secondary organizations based on universal membership criteria. According to a recent analysis by Goran Hyden, “the prime contemporary challenge is how to restore a civic public realm. The trend of postindependence politics in most African countries has been to disintegrate the civic public realm inherited from the colonial powers and replace it with rivaling communal or primordial realms, all following their own informal rules" (Hyden 1992:23). Yet the good news from Botswana and Mauritius is that these communal and primordial realms can act as at least "a modest check on the power of the state" (Carroll and Carroll 1997: 479). In other words, under favorable circumstances traditional social forces can perform some of those functions that we would normally expect demand the presence of a more fully developed civil society. That is, ethnically divided societies can sustain democracy even though their civil societies have been weak, and ethnic divisions continue to exist.

Perhaps the main message from the experience of these countries is the importance of competent leadership and some measure of institutional innovation. None of the countries may live up to the highest demands of liberal democratic procedures and institutions, but they should be credited with substantial democratic success anyway. Current developments in Uganda appear to present another encouraging case of the combination of competent leadership and institutional innovation. Under Yoweri Museveni an institutional and political reconstruction of the state is underway which promises to respect basic democratic features (political control is vested in elected bodies after a process of basically free elections). Yet political democracy is far from complete; a multi-party system is not allowed due to fears that it will recreate the ethnic divisions that drove Uganda to civil war and state failure. A referendum around year 2000 is expected to decide whether or not this system shall continue (Kjær and Svensson, 1997).

The lesson for outsiders appears to be that the support for competent leadership and some measure of institutional innovation (which may compromise the ideal of a 'perfect' political democracy) is the way ahead. One must hope that narrow interests will not prevent moving in this direction. In any case, outsiders can probably only be facilitators; they cannot on their own produce the necessary conditions for democracy and development. In other words, democracy and development can not be taught; it can only be learnt (cf. Clapham 1996:823). The learning process will, however, continue to be heavily dependent on the lessons and recommendations that Western countries have to offer.


The process of democratization does not fare well in many Third World countries. We are not facing a sweeping backslide to authoritarianism; the problem is sooner one of democratic consolidation; a very large number of the current transitions remain stuck in the shallow waters of `electoral democracy'. I have pointed to the lack of political community, the various models of democracy promoted by the West, and to the notion of elitism as underlying elements which help explain the lack of sustained democratic progress. External actors bear some substantial responsibility for this state of affairs. Even if it is true that democracy can not be taught, only learnt, Western countries would do well to rethink some of the practices in support for democracy. Especially, more support for competent leaders and institutional innovation appears to promise better result in terms of both democracy and development.


Applebaum, Anne (1996). "Central Europe: Nice Guys Finish Last", in Roger Kaplan et al., Freedom in the World. The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties 1995-96, New York: Freedom House.

Baeg Im, H. (1987). "The Rise of Bureaucratic Authoritarianism in South Korea", World Politics, vol. XXXIX, no. 2.

Barya, J-J.B. (1992) "The New Political Conditionalities of Aid: An Independent View from Africa" paper for EADI Conference on The New Political Conditionalities of Development Assistance, Vienna 23-24 April.

Bienen, Henry and Jeffrey Herbst (1996). "The Relationship between Political and Economic Reform in Africa", Comparative Politics, October, pp. 23-42.

Bollen, Kenneth (1993). "Liberal Democracy: Validity and Method Factors in Cross-National Measures", American Journal of Political Science 37:4, pp. 1207-30.

Brown, T. Louise (1996). The Challenge to Democracy in Nepal, London: Routledge.

Carroll, Barbara Wake and Terrance Carroll (1997). "State and Ethnicity in Botswana and Mauritius: A Democratic Route to Development?", The Journal of Development Studies, vol. 33, no. 4, April, pp. 464-86.

Clapham, Christopher (1996). "Governmentality and economic policy in Sub-Saharan Africa", Third World Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 809-24.

Clapham, Christopher (1996a). Africa and the International System. The Politics of State Survival, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. (1989). Democracy and Its Critics, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. (1992). “Democracy and Human Rights under Different Conditions of Development”, pp. 235-52 in Asbjørn Eide and Bernt Hagtvet (eds.), Human Rights in Perspective, Oxford: Blackwell.

Diamond, Larry (1996). "Is the Third Wave Over?", Journal of Democracy, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 20-38.

Diamond, Larry et al. (eds.) (1988). Democracy in Developing Countries. Vol. 2: Africa, Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Doyle, Michael W. (1983). "Kant, Liberal Legacies and Foreign Affairs, Part 2", Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 323-54.

Elklit, Jørgen (1994). "Is the Degree of Electoral Democracy Measurable?", pp. 89-11 in David Beetham (ed.), Defining and Measuring Democracy, London: Sage.

Freedom in the World. The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties 1996-97, in Freedom Review, vol. 28, no. 1; New York: Freedom House.

Grindle, Merilee (1996). Challenging the State: Crisis and Innovation in Latin America and Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hamilton, Clive (1987). "Can the Rest of Asia Emulate the NICs?", Third World Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 4.

Holsti, Kalevi J. (1996). The State, War, and the State of War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hyden, Goran (ed.) (1992). Governance and Politics in Africa, Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Jackson, Robert H. (1990). Quasi-states: sovereignty, international relations and the Third World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, Chalmers (1987). "Political Institutions and Economic Performance: The Government Business Relationship in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan", pp. 136-65 in Fred C. Deyo (ed.), The Political Economy of New Asian Industrialism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Karl, Terry Lynn (1990). "Dilemmas of Democratization in Latin America", Comparative Politics, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 1-21.

Kenny, Charles (1997). “Senegal and the Entropy Theory of Development”, European Journal of Development Research (forthcoming).

Kjær, Mette and Palle Svensson (1997). "Rekonstruktion i Uganda", Politica, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 164-80.

Laakso, Liisa and Adebayo O. Olukoshi (1996). “The Crisis of the Post-Colonial Nation-State Project in Africa”, in Laakso and Olukoshi (eds.), Challenges to the Nation-State in Africa, Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute, pp. 7-40.

Mansfield, Edward and Jack Snyder (1995). "Democratization and War", International Security 20, no. 1, pp. 5-38.

Monga, Celestin (1997). “Eight Problems with African Politics”, Journal of Democracy, vol. 8, no. 3, July, pp. 156-70.

Moore, David (1996). "Reading Americans on Democracy in Africa: From CIA to 'Good Governance", European Journal of Development Research, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 123-49.

Nadia, Ghia (1996). "How Different are Postcommunist Transitions?", Journal of Democracy, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 15-29.

Ottaway, Marina (1995). "Democratization in Collapsed States", pp. 235-51 in I. William Zartman (ed.), Collapsed States. The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority, Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Payne, Douglas W. (1996). "Latin America and the Caribbean: Storm Warnings", in Roger Kaplan et al., Freedom in the World. The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties 1995-96, New York: Freedom House.

Pinkney, Robert (1993). Democracy in the Third World, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Robinson, William I. (1996). Promoting Polyarchy. Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rustow, Dankwart A. (1970). "Transitions to Democracy", Comparative Politics, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 337-65.

Sørensen, Georg (1993). Democracy and Democratization, Boulder: Westview Press.

Sørensen, Georg (1996). "Development as a Hobbesian Dilemma", Third World Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 5, pp. 903-16.

The Economist (1996). 30.11-6.12.:24.

Therborn, Goran (1977). "The rule of capital and the rise of democracy", New Left Review 103, pp. 3-41.

Weffort, Francisco C. (1990). "A America errada", Lua Nova 21.

World Bank (1994). Adjustment in Africa. Reforms, Results and the Road Ahead, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

World Bank (1997). World Development Report 1997. The State in a Changing World, New York: Oxford University Press.


[1]. Comments on an earlier draft of this paper from Jørgen Elklit and Mette Kjær are gratefully acknowledged.