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Democracy vs development

  • Published at 10:34 pm December 29th, 2018
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The wheels are in motion

The two go hand in hand

As we head towards what appears to be yet another “managed” election, five years later we cannot help but fail to notice the difference in the rationale the ruling party used in these two elections to justify its heavy management. Five years ago, it was all about 1971 and Islamic extremism. This time it is accepting flawed democracy for the sake of continuation of development.

We have to accept continuity of one-party dominance to maintain the rapid economic development the country is experiencing, as the saying goes. Look at Malaysia, Singapore, China, and the other supermodels of third world development. Not much models of democracy, they are.

There are two big premises behind this appeal of forgoing competitive democracy on the altar of development. First, Bangladesh is currently on a clear development path. There is certainly lot of support for this contention. Most of the national economic indicators show that Bangladesh has been one of the highest improving among the class of LDCs. The ruling party deserves lot of praise for this growth.

For example,thisgovernment has been far better than its predecessors in expanding electricity supply, which is the most important necessity for economic growth. Moreover, repressive or not, the ruling party has managed to make recurring hartals a thing of past, surely one of the silliest and most self-destructive political practices the modern world has seen.

For now, let us give credit where credit is due.

The second premise is that constraining and curtailing democracy is necessary for rapid development of poor, third world countries. Yes, almost all the superstars of third worlddevelopment in the post WWII era were flawed democracies or straight-upautocracies. However, almost all of them are from East and South East Asia.

The economic management record of non-democracies in Africa andthe Middle East were dismal, in Latin America below par. For every South Korea or Taiwan, there are ten Zimbabwes or Venezuelas. Which destiny is more likely for a potentially authoritarian Bangladesh?

This less democratic, dominant government-led rapid economic development was first successfully done in the 19th century in Prussian Germany. Japan directly emulated the German model in the late 19th century. After WWII, Korea and Taiwan, two countries long occupied and colonized by Japan, used the Japanese model of economic development with great success.

Later on, Malaysia and Thailand used many of the lessons of development from East Asian countries. And of course, after 1980, China was the stage of the largest and most rapid economic development in human history while the country remained strictly authoritarian.

There are several important characteristics common to all these national developments in the last 150 years. First of all, all these countries were characterized by powerful, meritocratic, and disciplined bureaucracies. Bureaucrats are critical for directed development because it is they who plan, implement, and monitor policies. Also, it is bureaucrats who extract the tax from the people and spend it.

Among these countries that had dominant political parties, the ruling party closely worked with the bureaucracy and the parties were themselves inclusive, meritocratic, and disciplined. Interestingly, corruption and cronyism were prevalent in almost all these successful countries, but the corruption was confined at the high levels of the party, bureaucracy, and business. It was not free-for-all buffet for all levels.

The second important feature of this authoritarian development model was that all these regimes heavily invested in human capital development -- particularly education. Providing high-quality universal schooling and world-class university education were basic objectives of these countries. The universities in turn were very closely associated with bureaucracy and business.

There were other important markers of developmental path, but for now, let’s do a quick check up on Bangladesh. Bureaucracy and political parties in Bangladesh are infamously inefficient, non-meritocratic, ill-disciplined, and wasteful. In measures of capacity or efficiency, bureaucracy in Bangladesh ranks among the most dismal performers of the world.

As for discipline in political parties? The answer is obvious to all. Political economists have argued that political unrest is not the main political problem in Bangladesh but lack of control in political parties.

The marker of education does not indicate a clear path to the city upon a hill, either. The states of school education and the exam system have been a staple of national grievances. In university education, many of our fellow developing countries who followed our system and were served by our system, have now progressed far beyond us.

The dismal state of university education is even more important in this era. Value addition of just technological products has diminished a lot since the glory days of East Asian development, while knowledge-intensive products have become most value-added today.

Bangladesh is missing the most important markers of development paths blazed by authoritarian East Asian countries. Our development has been mostly fortuitous, fueled by RMG exports and remittance. Venezuela, rather than Korea, may be a more likely destination for us.

Development need not be without democracy. India, the world biggest, most vibrant, and most chaotic democracy, may not be doing as spectacularly as China, economically, but it is doing quite well. Most importantly, Indian citizens can do course correction when they feel that their leaders are leading them in to unwanted paths and destinations.

People who are stuck with leaders for life do not have that most important satisfaction -- some control over their own destiny.

Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.