By now it’s no secret: Democracy is under attack worldwide. A Who’s Who of selfish leaders, from ascendant populist demagogues to long-reigning dictators, has turbocharged the assault on democratic institutions. Leaders on both the right and left of the political spectrum have elbowed their way into the fight, and the contagion has affected all regions of the world. It also shows little sign of abating.
This corroding commitment to democracy on the part of political elites has naturally filtered down to the average person. According to a recent survey, a median of 51 percent of people polled in 27 countries are dissatisfied with how democracy is working for them.
Yet there is one region of the world that is following a different trend. Data shows that an overwhelming majority of Africans believe that democracy remains the best form of government and that free, fair and multiparty elections remain the ideal way to choose their leaders. While voter turnout is declining globally, it has been relatively stable in Africa over the past few decades. To paraphrase a notable scholar: While people are questioning the value of democracy, especially in many Western states, African populations who have experienced one-party or military rule are prepared to fight the resurgence of authoritarianism.
National leaders, however, often disagree. Africa’s three most recent elections illustrate the resulting divide.
Benin, Malawi and Mauritania, while quite different from each other in many respects, have all endured post-election fallout resulting in violence, mass arrests, the targeting of activists and various court challenges. The discontent is fueled by assumptions that those in power imposed themselves by force or illegality rather than fairly by the ballot box.
While these inevitable breaking points are evident, they are also avoidable. All three countries are part of a trend in which significant resources have been spent on so-called nonpolitical development initiatives, including public health and education. This safe and rather noncontroversial approach keeps grant managers and donors happy.
But it also helps to empower and further entrench abusive leaders, in Africa and elsewhere. To be blunt: Modern authoritarians have learned to play the “reform game,” absorbing massive amounts of external aid while avoiding genuine reform. This often sets a country back for generations, and consequently provides an expedient avenue for donors and development organizations to continue to fill.
This is not to deny the importance of development interventions, such as assisting African partners to stanch the spread of Ebola or building schools or vaccinating children. Stopgap measures have their value, and they often save lives that would otherwise be lost or devalued. Such interventions, though, must be properly identified as tactical measures, not a feature of long-term strategies.
Simply put: Despite what the world’s autocrats and their curious bedfellows in the development world would have you believe, a healthy democracy is essential for boosting a country’s development outcomes. The data shows that African citizens understand this fact. They have lived it. Donors and major development organizations would be wise to follow their lead.
Importantly, development aid and pro-democracy aid can play complementary roles. Yet donors, and the citizens they are actually seeking to empower, would receive a bigger return on their investments over the long term by focusing on building democracy.
First and foremost, democracy has been shown to improve a nation’s overall health. This is because democratic governments are inherently more open, more accountable and transparent, as well as protective of media freedom. This enabling environment allows leaders to be more responsive and use feedback to improve the quality of basic services. Democratic nations are also more likely to increase their own spending on health care in the long term, which benefits all sides involved.
Second, there is strong evidence that democracy leads to stronger economies. This democratic advantage is especially pronounced for African countries that have remained democratic for longer periods of time. More often than not, autocrats and other abusive leaders fail to implement the needed reforms that will sustain economic growth. Since they are not held accountable — and because the aid continues to flow, regardless — they really have no incentive to act in the public interest.
Third, states that hold free and fair elections, and leaders who abide by basic democratic principles, are inherently less corrupt. They are also better positioned to prevent non-state violence, including acts of terrorism.
The evidence is clear: Positive development outcomes are dependent on democratic foundations, including free and fair elections. Development organizations and donors alike should take this as an excellent excuse to add democracy promotion to their portfolios. Aid-givers should prioritize the democratic demands of African citizens — and allocate resources accordingly. Until that happens, authoritarians and ruthless dictators will continue to be feted at glitzy international conferences, even as they continue to repress their own people. Their domination will be maintained under the guise of “development,” and they will continue to dupe well-intentioned do-gooders everywhere.
A rethink is long overdue. It is time to start addressing the root causes of global democratic backsliding, and to stop merely applying Band-Aids to its evident symptoms.
Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of Vanguard Africa and the Vanguard Africa Foundation, which support pro-democracy initiatives and free and fair elections across Africa.