Down With Democracy?

Excerpts from Famine and Foreigners – Peter Gill – PP167-170

In my first interview with Meles Zenawi, we covered the government’s protracted arguments with the aid-givers over the free market reforms that they expected Ethiopia to adopt and which Ethiopia on the whole resisted. This was the first of the ‘aid conditionalities’. Seven weeks later I was back in the surreal quiet of the prime minister’s secretariat. This time we started on ‘governance’—the second ‘conditionality’—which Meles regarded as another unwelcome neoliberal imposition. ‘We believe that democracy, good governance and transparency and fighting corruption are good objectives for every country, particularly for developing countries,’ he began.

In the case of Ethiopia we go beyond that and say unless the country successfully democratizes, it will inevitably disintegrate . . . where we had our differences with the so-called neoliberal paradigm is first on the perception that this can be imposed from outside. We do not believe that is possible. . . . So this concept of the external environment imposing a certain set of governance rules is in our view impractical, and could be counter-productive . . . Internalization of accountability is central to democratization . . . the state has to be accountable to the citizens, and not some embassy or foreign actor.

What then of the argument that the eradication of poverty required better ‘governance’ and that Ethiopians would be much better off if ‘governance’ were more rigorously applied in tackling it? For a start, and however strong the evidence to the contrary, Meles simply did not accept that he was presiding over a period of harsh new restrictions. Then he gave me something of a tutorial on the ‘developmental state’, one of the themes of his thesis for the university in Rotterdam.

The most substantial excerpt posted on the Internet came from a chapter entitled ‘Democracy, Developmental State and Development’. In it he first reviews the evidence for democracy getting in the way of development. There is the ‘hustle of democracy’, and the burden of government having ‘to deal with democratic legitimisation of its rule’. Politicians are able to think no further than the next election. ‘It is argued therefore that the developmental state will have to be undemocratic in order to stay in power long enough to carry out successful development.’

These concerns are not to be lightly dismissed, but there is a way round them, he writes. He points to the broad coalitions that kept stable democratic governments in power for long periods in Scandinavia and Japan, the ‘so-called dominant party democracies’. Unsurprisingly, this is the option that Meles the politician appears to favour in his role as academic analyst. The rural population, he goes on, can be ‘the solid base for a stable developmental coalition in a developing country’. There, too, analysis appears conveniently to fit in with political practicality in Ethiopia. ‘The most likely scenario for a state that is both democratic and developmental to emerge is in the form of a dominant party or dominant coalition democracy.’

In the final paragraph of the excerpt, Meles adds a telling qualification. A democratic outcome is never guaranteed in the developing world, but in the right conditions ‘there is a reasonable chance for a developmental and democratic state to emerge’.

Meles’s quarrel with the big donors centred on their use of aid as a lever to propel the country along the democratic path at their pace, not his. They needed guarantees, timetables, and performance indicators. He had his academic studies to inform him, and he offered only ‘a reasonable chance’ of democracy. ‘Some in the neoliberal world seem to believe that economic development and growth and good governance and democratization are inseparable,’ he said.

That is not validated by historical facts. Theoretically, there is no reason to believe that democratization is a precondition of economic development. The reverse—that democratization can be the result of a certain level of economic development—appears to be more robust than the other way round, but even that in our view is not a proven fact. Germany was the most advanced economy in Europe prior to the Second World War. It never had much success in democratization—a brief interlude in the Weimar Republic, and even that was a very problematic period.

As in the case of the ‘first conditionality’ relating to free market reforms, Meles said that Ethiopia had paid a price for not subscribing to the donors’ ‘governance’ agenda.

They have been quite frank with us, and we have been quite frank with them and in the end we came to an understanding—we get less aid, but we get more space. They get more delivery with less money. . . . Nevertheless the fact remains that we are to some extent externally accountable. There is some level of externalization of accountability, even here in Ethiopia. It comes with the territory.

He gave as an example relations between government and opposition in the violent aftermath of the disputed 2005 elections. Meles argued that such disputes in Europe would be addressed by the parties themselves or taken to court. ‘That is not what happens in Ethiopia,’ he said. ‘If we have disagreements, sometimes the embassies know of them before some of us have become aware that there are these disagreements.’ Yet the government did itself on occasions seek the donors’ intervention to try and resolve such differences, and Meles saw that as ‘a very clear indication of the externalization of accountability. That retards the maturation process of the institutions of democratic governance in Ethiopia.’

The fault line in this argument, surely, lay in the idea that political dialogue or court processes offered the opposition any prospect of redress when scores of their supporters had been shot dead and when their leadership had been thrown into jail facing charges of genocide.

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