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A Democratic 21st Century? Signals from the United Nation's Human Development Report 2002


Review Article: Human Development Report 2002: Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World (UNDP, 2002)

Large public statements are signals aimed at diverse audiences. As such, UNDP's Human Development Report 2002 (HDR02) hits more than one target. The report takes a substantial step in making democratic participation, conceived in broadest terms, a development goal in its own right and courageously opens up public debate on how politics and political power matter for development. The Report leaves to others the task of spelling out a set of actions and policies that can materialise its well-aimed signals.

The report's central concern is democratic governance and political participation. A democratic 21st century, the HDR02 argues, rests on the wide acceptance of three ideas:

1. Democratic participation is a dimension of human development, as well as a means by which subordinated groups, and poorer social groups in particular, can support state reform and pro-poor public policies.

2. There is no single formula for democracy. Democracies come in different forms as they adapt to local circumstances and reflect particular histories. It is not necessary, or likely, that the countries coming out of the recent wave of democratic transitions will develop the particular models of democracy that today characterise North America and Western Europe.

3. Democratising reforms are needed at the level of global decision-making arrangements, such as the World Bank and IMF. High priority should be given to reforming the international system of trade rules that systematically work against low and middle-income countries, and the development of rules that can restrain protectionism among OECD countries.

Well before terror shook the global superpower in the second half of 2001, discussions on getting institutions rights had begun to evolve into the multiple good-governance agendas. Millennium Development Goals were established by the mid-90s and the protest movements that have sprung up around the gatherings of the international big and mighty - Seattle, Washington DC, Genoa, etc.-began in 1999. Disquiet over the impact on global poverty and inequality of neoliberal reform or neoliberal globalisation - trade liberalisation, privatisation, and the deregulation of capital, energy, labour markets etc. - led a number of bilateral and multilateral actors to refocus on poverty reduction and empowerment of the poor. But, and this is the big 'but,' when the global superpower shakes, the ground beneath everybody's feet appears to move.

US unilateralism, and the new pursuit of non-state terror, has forced into the open the need for energetic public discussion of the role bilateral and multilateral actors can, and should, play in domestic political processes and institutions of low and middle-income countries. On the day the Bush administration requested an extra $27bn from Congress to fight terror (at home and abroad), the President was in Monterrey, Mexico, to pledge a 50% increase in the US development aid budget. The new aid would be tied to willingness of recipient governments to undertake political, legal and economic reforms. In case the sub-text was lost on anyone, Bush's statement at Monterrey included the following passage:

"Men and women were made for freedom, and prosperity comes as freedom triumphs. And that is why the United States of America is leading the fight for freedom from terror. We thank our friends and neighbors throughout the world for helping in this great cause. History has called us to a titanic struggle, whose stakes could not be higher because we're fighting for freedom, itself. We will challenge the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize and try to turn to their advantage."

The signals sent by the HDR02 help create an important opportunity to discuss the limits and ethics of what international actors are capable of doing well, given their own organisational limits and political realities, as they focus on the politics of democratisation and human development. The report is courageous in saying publicly what has been thought and said behind closed doors for many decades - that development is about, among other things, politics and change in the distribution of power. This should be taken advantage of by those who favour maintaining the distinction between international development and counter-terrorism, between broad (global) democratisation and the imposition of a singular model of liberal democracy at the level of the nation-state. The report presents an opportunity to move beyond current narrow emphasis on governance and accountability, and the single-minded push to expand the role of civil society as the answer to state-failure, towards defining a broader politics of inclusion in international development.

Democratic Participation as Human Capability and Freedom
The strongest signal sent by the HDR02 is that democratic participation, beyond its instrumental uses, is an important dimension of human development in its own right. The explicit addition of democratic participation greatly enriches the notion of human development. The report highlights the importance of "collective agency" (versus individual agency) to expand the choices of the poor and their ability to exercise power in the political arena. Traditional forms of electoral participation are seen as important, but inadequate. Collective agency, "is an important motor of progress in issues central to human development" (p. 53). In moving from individual to collective agency the report acknowledges an old finding in the social sciences - that resource-poor people acquire power in the political process when they succeed in forming collective actors, such as labour unions, labour-based parties, social movements, or civil society networks. Central to human development is the need to constitute reform-oriented collective actors, which are essential to putting in place and sustaining policies that have positive distributional consequences and that support expanding democratic participation.

Signals such as these can easily descend into populism, but the authors of the HDR02 offer a balanced and realistic evaluation of the limits of what democracies and democratic participation can offer. They draw on sophisticated research on the relationship between democracy and development and acknowledge the ambiguous contribution democracy has made to economic growth, poverty reduction, and to the Human Development Index.

Democracy is a Lake
The authors of the HDR02 may not have read Charles Tilly's remarkable paper 'Democracy is a Lake' (1994). They appear, however, to have intuited its central message. Tilly's analogy reminds people that lakes come into being in the most varied ways - mountain streams feed into natural basins, glaciers melt, people or things dam up parts of large rivers, other people deliberately dig enormous holes and channel water into them from nearby watersheds, and so on. Once large inland bodies of water have formed, they display common features and processes, so much so Tilly points out, that an entire scientific speciality (limnology) has been built around these regularities. So too with democracies, which have emerged and developed under an array of historical conditions and followed diverse trajectories, yet share a number of general (and desirable) features that has made them one of the most studied social phenomena.

The HDR02 breaks some ground by acknowledging the diverse forms democracies have taken in different national contexts and by issuing an unambiguous disavowal of a single democratic formula or recipe. This position forces one to think about what kinds of political processes constitute democracy, and are reproduced by democracy, rather then what particular institutional arrangement produces democracy. Broadly similar political processes will require different institutional arrangements across national and sub-national context that vary.

Global Democratisation
The HDR02 throws its weight behind the growing calls for the democratisation of international institutions and decision-making arrangements to rectify the extraordinarily skewed distribution of global power and wealth. The suggestions for change are timid - greater pluralism in global decision-making and more participation and accountability in relation to multilateral actors. However, the authors dedicate one of only five chapters to democratisation in the international arena. This represents an unprecedented signal that some of the most important governance work that requires attention today is amongst OECD governments and the international organisations who are involved in establishing a particular, highly inequitable, international trade and financial regime, and system of property rights.

Some Confusing Signals
The quality of the signals declines sharply as the HDR02 attempts to sort out the implications for public and private action. Chapters 3-5 lose the sharp and innovative edge. The grasp of where current debate is, and what policy lessons are emerging from the most interesting research in this area, appears tenuous.

Perhaps most remarkable is the lapse into discussing institutions, and even civil society (or civic activism) without reference to political actors and processes, which to many are the very substance of politics. Even when HDR02 discusses the importance of political parties and "pressure from below" to bringing about reform, it ignores political actors. The discussion of political parties, innovative in important ways, is essentially technical, with no reference to their most important roles - constructing collective actors that can aggregate interests and help negotiate democratic compromise. The same is true of the treatment of civil society, which goes back to equating 'pressure from below' with what the Report calls 'civic activism.' Particularly surprising is the absence of a discussion on how the political capabilities of poor might be built up - that is, the ways in which collective agency can be constructed.

This kind of lapse is common in public discussion of development. The treatment of institutions is often barren: institutions are seen as structures which are both devoid of people yet are nevertheless able to get people to change behaviour. Seeing institutions in this manner leads the HDR02 to echo the widely held but not very illuminating view that the poor performance of new democracies in terms of human development, is the product of elite capture, and/or corruption, of the state and of the limited reach of democratic institutions. A different view on how institutions function will lead to a different diagnosis of the problem.

Politics with Institutions and Actors
We know that the effects of similar rules and institutions differ considerably across countries (and often across regions within countries). Institutional effects also differ across different positions within systems of stratification (i.e. racial, ethnic, gender or class based). This means that rules and institutions do not have 'independent' effects - it matters who uses them, vis-à-vis whom, and to what ends. A single set of rules can be used to both empower and disempower. Institutional effects therefore cannot be predicted without knowledge of the power relations that may flow through them and which ends are being pursued. Knowledge of institutions without knowledge of which actors use them is, to be blunt, useless.

This suggests that institutional reform should be based on:

1. Knowledge of which actors are likely to use the new institutions, and toward what ends.

2. A medium to long timeframe. Institutional change creates uncertainty and it takes time for actors to gauge (i) the new opportunities and constraints they face, (ii) how other actors are interpreting the changes, adjusting their behaviour, and attempting to use the new institutions, and to (iii) (re)negotiate their relations with these other actors as they experiment with new behaviours and strategies.

3. The realisation that, once various actors begin to use new institutions to negotiate relations and pursue goals, these institutions acquire their own dynamic, evolve, and escape the control of the actor(s) (domestic or foreign) who created them.

The lessons the HDR02 draws from the disappointing impact of various types of decentralisation reforms on empowering the poor and reducing poverty illustrates the importance of these three premises. The shortcomings of past decentralisation reforms, the HDR02 suggests, can be solved by ensuring (i) broad participation and (ii) the accountability of local officials. The suggestion has several problems but here let's focus on one. It does not take into account the central lesson taught by Tendler's (1997) important book Good Governance in the Tropics, and Crook and Sverrisson (forthcoming) - that is, the relationship between national and local political leaders [e.g. actors] is crucial to the outcome of decentralising reforms, and that the political motivations behind national leaders' support for such reforms have a significant impact on the pro-poor consequences of decentralisation.

Viewing the politics of development as a process moved forward by actors who use a range of rules and institutions opens up alternative explanations for the poor performance of the newer democracies to those offered in the report. It is, for example, possible that there are organised groups in society that have an interest in limiting the functioning of democratic institutions and, in contexts where democratic institutions do function well, have an interest in limiting who can win the democratic game. When such groups have disproportionate power (relative to other groups), they can ensure that democratic practice does not produce human development. Similarly, several decades of research documents the role different organised group such as middle class sectors and working class movements have played in expanding the franchise and the array of civil, political and social rights, to the development of party systems. Paradoxically, Chapter Three ignores the report's underlying idea that democracies will, and should, vary by national context and in how they develop. Two important messages fail to materialise.

First, different types of 'democratic challenges' arise in different national and sub-national contexts. For example, in countries with high stratification versus low stratification; or in countries where state authority and capacity for action is weak (Nigeria, Guatemala), versus ones where these are well established (Vietnam, South Africa). We know that differential access to economic resources influences the ability to play the democratic game, and it is likely that democracies in highly stratified societies function differently from those in that are less stratified, and tend to produce different development outcomes. We also have a sense that structural changes in the economy, for example those being produced by international capital flows, trade and production, may be altering who can engage in collective action and around what kinds of issues. There are a number of such basic differences that weigh heavily on the task of democratic deepening.

Second, political systems can be more democratic along certain dimensions, and less democratic along others. To move discussions on democratisation forward, it is necessary to move away from seeing democracy as a coherent and dense constellation of institutions, and instead see general dimensions of democracy that may be loosely linked and stand in tension to each other. For example, Tilly (1994) suggests dimensions of democracy that broadly fit the HDR02's message: equality of citizenship, breadth of citizenship, binding consultation, and protection from arbitrary state action. These four dimensions can be guaranteed in different ways, by different institutional arrangements. What matters is their realisation in practice. Looking at democracy along these or other dimensions is important to understanding differences amongst democracies, as well as to strategizing where and when to pursue reform initiatives.

Indicating Governance?
Growing effort has been going into developing quantitative 'governance indicators.' Good indicators would enable analysts and policy makers to compare countries across the globe and think through global policy priorities far more effectively. The HDR02's puts these indicators on display in Chapter 1. Unfortunately the warning "consumers beware" was left out. People should not start using these numbers, for policy making or theory building, without thinking through very carefully what they actually measure, and how the measurement is made in practice. As Moore et al. (forthcoming) notes "when we look for cross-national databases on quality of governance, we have (a) no consensus about what we should be measuring and (b) a choice limited to few data sets that at best measure only one dimension of governance." Because of the lack of reliable and comparable data, such measures are often constructed with dubious proxies (among those that the HDR02 lists are voter turn out, year women won the franchise, union members, and number of NGOs). Unfortunately, the reliability of data for the poorest countries is, not surprisingly, also the lowest and often the least complete. Compared, however, to more subjective measures of democracy, these objective measures are like fine wine. The subjective measures used in the report are made out of the subjective evaluation of either in-house specialists or in loco consultants or advisors. In either case, is it impossible to follow accepted methodological criteria - that is, apply a single set of criteria, in the same fashion, to all the countries in the universe being analysed (often all countries). What these measures tend to produce, broadly speaking, is indicators constructed out of what can be called multiple contextualized subjectivities - i.e. collections of opinions strongly influenced by local context.

Some of the governance indicators, such as the widely cited International Country Risk Guide (ICRG), suffer from a more systematic bias. ICRG rates governments according to their responsiveness to the needs of international investors and lenders. ICRG is made up of five indicators of particular concern to the company's principal clients: Risk of Repudiation of Contracts by Government, Risk of Expropriation, Corruption, Rule of Law, and Bureaucratic Quality. Moore et al. (forthcoming) found that governments that score high on the ICRG consistently perform poorly on the efficiency with which they convert national material resources into human development. The authors conclude that "this finding throws into doubt the assumption that good governance is essentially a linear, uni-dimensional variable, and points to a more traditional conclusion: that there is an element of direct conflict between policies that favour (international) capital and policies that favour the poor."

Final Comment
It is difficult to define criteria against which to assess public documents such as the UN's Human Development Reports and the World Bank's World Development Reports. This is particularly so for people not involved in the monumental task of pulling these statements together. I have used three criteria in this review of the HDR02. I have looked at the extent to which the document (i) advances public debate in international development, (ii) uses concepts and data that are currently circulating among researchers and social scientists, and (iii) spells out a set of ideas for public policy that have a reasonable chance of producing the objectives set in the document. The Report scores very high on the first. It scores well above average on the second (in the first half of the report). On the third, the HDR team perhaps simply ran out of steam and have left it to others to take the next step.

The Human Development Report is published annually by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (

Richard Crook and Alan S. Sverrisson, "Does Decentralization Contribute to Poverty Reduction? Surveying the Evidence," in Peter P. Houtzager and Mick Moore, eds., Changing Paths: International Development and the Politics of Inclusion (Michigan University Press, forthcoming).

Mick Moore et al., "Polity Qualities: How Governance Affects Poverty," in Peter P. Houtzager and Mick Moore, eds., Changing Paths: International Development and the Politics of Inclusion (Michigan University Press, forthcoming).

Judith Tendler, Good Governance in the Tropics (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Charles Tilly, "Democracy is a Lake," in Roads from the Past to the Future (Rowman and Littlefield, 1994).

Keywords: democracy, institutions, governance indicators, UNDP

Commentator: Peter P. Houtzager, IDS (July 2002)

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