Democracy in the developing world

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This essay by Katy Knight, 18, who is studying for her A-levels at the Henrietta Barnett School, north London, was joint winner of a competition organised by the Independent and other leading newspapers around the world to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy in Greece. The other winning essay, by Mary Lenton, a student at Oriel College, Oxford, was published in yesterday's paper.

FOR A LONG time most of the developing world has been under non-democratic rule, be it military dictatorship, one-party government or absolute monarchy. If elections are held, the choice of candidates may be limited and some members of the population may be coerced into voting in a certain way, or excluded from the casting of votes (eg, only first-class Kuwaiti men aged 21 or over, whose families have been in the country since 1920, were eligible to vote in recent elections). Once elected, the body of representatives will not necessarily be granted the power to legislate or oppose the government; freedom of speech and of the press or other basic human rights may be suppressed.

The high incidence of non- democratic government in developing countries suggests that the conditions which characterise underdevelopment (eg, low income per capita, unutilised resources, low levels of literacy) are inimical to the process of democratisation and make the maintenance of democratic government less probable.

Various explanations for the creation of a democracy have been posited, including industrialisation or the pattern of landholding in agrarian societies - free farming being more conducive to democracy. It is the greater degree of social pluralism and dispersion of economic and intellectual power common to both societies that fosters the growth of democracy. A study has shown that there is indeed a high degree of association between the occurrence of democratic government and more advanced levels of urbanisation, education (subscription to democratic values is greater among the better educated) and employment in agriculture, with the closest correlation being between the sophistication of a country's communications networks and its politics, but the relationship is by no means linear.

Establishing a democracy in a developing country is a task aggravated from the outset

by disadvantageous circumstances since (almost by definition) education standards are relatively poor, agricultural communities are prevalent, etc. If, however, there is popular demand for democracy and this accords with the beliefs of the political activists, and as a result democracy is initiated, are its days numbered simply because, despite enthusiasm on behalf of the people, the social environment is such in developing countries that corruption, violence, broken promises and collapse are inevitable?

Certainly elections in countries such as Ethiopia (where observers remarked that fraud was widespread), Mexico (opposition parties accused the ruling PRI of foul play) and Thailand (where poor peasants sell their votes) can hardly be called democratic by our standards.

If democracy is to function properly, it may be that, as with natural selection, it will survive into adolescence only if it is congruent with existing social institutions (the family, school, the workplace, etc), because strain can arise when people are subject to conflicting demands. However, independent and voluntary organisations can stimulate the desire and ability to participate in a wider political sphere, while acting as a countervailing force against the powers that erode democracy.

More important, societies with divisive subnational groups defined by race, language, religion or class may find democracy increasingly difficult to support, and more so if they have not had any experience of it in the past. Some 'underdeveloped' countries that were the product of imperial rule had their borders drawn so that different peoples found themselves sharing the same nationality. This undoubtedly destabilises any attempt to create a working democracy.

Despite the problems that developing countries encounter in their experiments with democracy, there has been a trend towards it in countries where one-party rule had been the norm. For instance, in many countries in French-speaking Africa dictatorships are giving way to democratically elected governments; and last year Paraguay held its first-ever free municipal elections.

Arab rulers, who in return for governing without participation of the people have undertaken to provide a reasonable standard of living for them, will begin to feel threatened by declining GDP and the possibility of revolution. Alberto Fujimori, the president of Peru, whose Emergency National Reconstruction Government, in the words of James Baker, the former US Secretary of State, 'destroyed democracy under the guise of saving it', has been under international pressure, in the form of suspended aid, to restore democracy. Pleas of special circumstances from the countries struggling with a democracy still in its infancy wield little clout in the eyes of their benefactors, for whom democracy represents the only fair means of governing.

It is evident that democracy is an option for developing countries to pursue (India provides a good example). Their success in sustaining it, however, depends on numerous factors, but particularly on the extent of their past experience of democratic government, the strength and size of the military, the compatibility of the social structure to the democratic process and the concentration of wealth in the population (and so power); but above all is the level of popular determination for democratic representation.

If democracy can be maintained, it is well worth the effort - it has been suggested that Latin America's recent economic progress derives from the spread of democracy - as foreign entrepreneurs need to be assured of reasonably secure political conditions (economic stagnation has been attributed in Africa, Asia and Latin America to political instability). If this is so, bad economic performance discourages democracy, while non-democratic government encourages sickly economies.

Full democracy is, and must be, an option. Yet the harvesting of its fruits is much more difficult than simply desiring them. Setbacks seem unavoidable and quick remedies nowhere to be found.