Workshop 5: 'Democracy and Poverty'

Dan Banik is directing a workshop on the relationship between democracy and poverty as part of the third international conference on Democracy as Idea and Practice, organised by the Research Programme on Democracy.

In this workshop, we wish to question whether certain regimes are better able and equipped to promote economic growth and eradicate poverty than others. In other words, what characterizes the relationship between poverty and democracy? And is there a connection between 'pro-poorness' and 'democracy'?

All are welcome, but we encourage you to register!


The relationship between poverty and democracy has attracted renewed interest in recent times. While large numbers of people continue to suffer the pains of poverty, an increasing number of countries in the developing world are choosing democratic forms of government. The Arab Spring is a case in point. The West, for its part, continues to highlight the key role that elections play in the democratisation process, often making aid conditional upon the holding of free and fair elections and improvement in the respect of civil and political rights. The West also readily criticises the recent trend by many Asian donors (e.g. China, Taiwan and South Korea) to provide generous grants and loans to African and East Asian countries without tying up such development assistance to good governance and the promotion of human rights. The impression given is that democracy, or at least its introduction, will save poor countries from falling further into the trap of poverty. Democracy, apart from being intrinsically valuable, is therefore largely viewed by many countries to further promote an important instrumental goal, namely development.

Most cross-country studies focusing on the relationship between democracy on the one hand and economic growth or poverty reduction on the other face enormous methodological problems and challenges. For example, there are many types of authoritarianism, and countries that fall under this category are very heterogeneous in character. Moreover, classifying democracy itself is also difficult since it usually takes various forms and it is difficult to identify countries that have been democracies for a substantially long period (which allows for meaningful comparisons). And all countries - including democracies - choose various types of economic strategies in order to promote economic growth and development and hence it is very difficult to operate with a constant economic strategy variable. Despite considerable research on the relationship between democracy and economic growth, the literature is, however, inconclusive. While some find a negative relationship between democracy and development, others find a positive relationship and still others do not find any evidence on whether democracy fosters or hinders economic growth. Thus, the democratic performance of countries like India, Costa Rica, Botswana, and Jamaica in reducing poverty does not compare favourably with non-democratic experiments in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, where the percentage of population below the poverty line is almost zero. In fact, the highest economic growers have almost always been authoritarian, although the East Asian success story may be exceptional since several authoritarian regimes - especially in Latin America and Africa - have been particularly insensitive to the poor. In terms of poverty reduction, the wild authoritarian fluctuations contrast sharply with a certain middling democratic consistency. But how can we explain such trends and what is the value of democracy in poverty and inequality reduction?

In recent years, Brazil, India and China have become much more assertive in international development, trade, environment and foreign aid policies. Riding on an impressive record of rapid economic growth and their sheer size, these countries are increasingly influencing social and economic policies around the world. In particular China, but also India, Brazil and South Africa, are interacting in numerous ways with poorer countries, including so-called ―South-South dialogues. These give access to natural resources, new and growing markets, and also reduce the dependence of African countries on traditional forms of aid from the Global North. These emerging countries and their policies represent a counterweight to the policies and development aid models that have for long been promoted directly or indirectly (e.g. through multilateral institutions) in poor countries by the Global North. Within the new aid architecture, there may be even less interest than before in addressing politically sensitive but important issues such as governance, human rights, income and gender inequality, unequal power relations in local society and issues of accountability. Will the tendency in the past to ―depoliticise aid policy now be enhanced? Will recent attempts to focus on improving the rule of law and the quality and functioning of formal institutions (e.g. civil service, oversight institutions, legislature, judiciary, civil society organisations) be abandoned - or at most replaced by technocratic and managerial approaches directed at individual behavioural change?'

The main purpose of this workshop is to reflect on a selected number of challenges that democracies face in relation to poverty based on empirical research undertaken in selected countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The overall purpose is to examine whether and to what extent democracy can save countries from falling into the trap of poverty and underdevelopment.


Published Jan. 6, 2012 2:31 PM