Economic development and democracy have to grow together
Text of the presentation by Prof Rajiva
Wijesinha, MP, chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats at the
meeting of the Alliance of Democrats in Rome on ‘The Future of
I was told very recently by a young liberal friend that, whenever I
spoke, a frustration with Europe came through. This, he claimed, had led
to everyone switching off when I spoke. I do not know if that is true,
but if it is I must thank the Alliance of Democrats even more for
inviting me here again, to a gathering that I have always found fruitful
and pluralistic, if I might draw attention to a value we celebrated at
the recent Conference of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP
I suspect my unpopularity with someone who has grown up after the end
of the Cold War is the stress I often lay on history. But I find that
that history is often forgotten even by those with more experience.
Recently, in talking about a country that a Belgian friend described as
now hopeless, the Congo, where there seems little hope of either
economic development or democracy, I mentioned the legacy of Belgian
colonialism, a more horrifying entity than perhaps any other form of
empire. He was quick to note that that was half a century ago. But when
I pointed out that the heirs of empire had then perpetuated the rule of
Joseph Mobutu, he granted that I had a point.
I make this point again because, as we strive to work together as
partners from all over the world, to promote democracy together with
economic development, we must recognize that the twinning of these is
very recent as far as decision makers round the world are concerned.
Communism of course had no commitment at all to democracy, but sadly it
succeeded all too soon in turning the West into a, fortunately pale,
shadow of itself: the contrast between democracy and authoritarianism
was subsumed by the struggle between capitalism and communism and, until
not very long ago, democracy was considered unnecessary by the West in
comparison with securing allies against the communist threat. And while
some dictatorships did provide economic development, in South Korea and
Taiwan for instance, the sad truth is that many others led their
countries into penury, and nobody cared.
This fact seemed particularly relevant last week when the President
of Liberal International presented the 2011 Prize for Freedom to Dr Chee
Soon Juan of the Singapore Democrat Party. That award was noteworthy
inasmuch as, unlike in the cases of other Asian members of CALD awarded
this prize, such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Sam Rainsy, it has been even
harder to establish what Dr Chee has been up against, because of the far
more subtle ways in which the Singapore government stifles dissension.
Political and social freedoms
Sadly even some Liberals, and various indices that set themselves up
to measure freedom, ignore political and social freedoms. Given the
immense economic development Singapore has evinced under its
authoritarian leadership, it is sometimes presented as a model for what
can be achieved without democracy in the fullest sense. I am grateful
then to the President of Liberal International for so simply making the
point that Singapore would have done even better had it also enjoyed
But, having said that, one wonders whether it is true, or even
plausible. As noted, some countries developed under dictatorships. And
there are also examples of democracy not promoting development, most
obviously to me Sri Lanka, in the first 30 years after independence. To
you, similarly, the recent experiences of Greece and Italy and Ireland,
to name just a few, suggest that democracy can also contribute to
economic decline - and the determination of other leaders that Greece
should not have held a referendum with regard to austerity measures
proposed is perhaps the clearest evidence that democracy is not always
trusted by those concerned with economic progress.
Nevertheless, even if the two are not necessarily bound together,
there is enough evidence of symbiosis, not only in the way the West
developed, but also more recently in the examples of Japan and India and
And the destruction wrought by most dictatorships clearly outweighs
the positive achievements of a few. More tellingly perhaps, with regard
to these latter, we can see that sustaining development demands openness
to new ideas, which is why we should register the internal democracy in
countries like China and Vietnam, which will save them one hopes from
the stagnation that the Soviet Union experienced when ancient leaders
out of tune with the modern world stayed on in power.
This prompts another thought that may help to fine tune the
relationship between democracy and economic development. That is the
need for development within democracy itself, the need for new ideas to
emerge and lead to new structures and practices. Continuity can corrupt,
as we have seen so graphically illustrated in the Middle East this year,
but also in Europe, where despite democracy the government in several
countries simply seemed the mixture as before.
The United Kingdom suffered from this in the decades before Mrs
Thatcher wrought a revolution, and facilitated economic progress where
there had been unremitting decline for years. I suspect the United
States too will see a need soon for radical change, given how sadly the
promise of Obama's election has yielded to the perception, which may be
inaccurate but is still powerfully experienced, that he is a prisoner of
an elitist status quo.
The irony of all this, in terms of our topic, is the manner in which
Europe, and the United States too, are wooing China to obtain financial
support. Putting it crudely, it would seem that democracies are unable
to cope with the demands of their voting population for greater
indebtedness, and the solution has to come from a country criticized for
not being democratic. Of course there are other ways of looking at this
situation, one of which I have noted in suggesting that democracy is
also about pluralism and sensitivity to wider needs, without
perpetuation of advantages to those groups that control state policy.
The recent spate of demonstrations may be another way of expressing
this need, to look also at the interests of those who feel state policy
ignores them. Democracy after all means the power of the people and,
while voting may seem a prerequisite to ensuring this, it is often not
enough. Decent education, equality of opportunity, wider understanding
of particular needs, also contribute to empowerment as well as the sense
that one is not powerless, which is also vital.
Newly emerging democracies
The despair of those who feel democratic structures will not prove
responsive to people's needs, given the power commanded by a perpetually
dominant elite, may find a parallel in those in newly democratized
countries who are suspicious of the motives of the West for promoting
their cause. We have been through the establishment of client states
before, horrendously Bokassa and Mobutu, but also characters like Idi
Amin and the Shah of Iran, of whom it is now almost forgotten how they
came into power by overthrowing democratically elected leaders. The
unseemly scramble for contracts in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown
will be remembered, and may contribute to prejudices about democracy and
its appeal to the West, if it is seen to be promoted only when it serves
external economic interests.
This is why it is important for bodies like this to be both
consistent and careful. The promise of newly emerging democracies should
not be betrayed the way Afghanistan was, leaving it prey to corruption
and patronage when other countries to overcome seemed of more immediate
concern. Similarly, there should be concentration now on what can be put
into Libya, not what can be taken out. The aim of democracy in any
country should be economic development in that country, first and
foremost, not economic development or rather exploitation for others.
I believe there are more idealists now, more people with greater
understanding of other countries. But we owe it to ourselves to be
vigilant about the motives of those who work in a good cause, and to
study the outcomes of interventions and even simple involvements.
Collateral benefits to oneself should never be taken for granted, and
questioning is essential when these do not help in empowering the people
they are supposed to serve.