Interaction between Democracy and Development in the Contemporary Era

The Relationship between Democracy and Sustainable ...

Relationship between Democracy and Sustainable Development

by Miskat Jahan 22 May 2019


Though both democracy and development are two conventional words around the modern world, but the interrelation between these two is crucial as well as has a debatable exposure. Democracy is one of the state principles which can act as an important catalyst to make the development more vivid. We can consider democracy as the process where development is the output. Economist Amartya Sen defined development as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy (Sen 1999). And democracy is the process of institutionalization of that freedom. So correlation between democratization and development is quite inherent. Sen’s view is now widely accepted:  development must be judged by its impact on people, not only by changes in their income but more generally in terms of their choices, capabilities and freedoms; and we should be concerned about the distribution of these improvements, not just the simple average for a society. In this aspect democracy is ‘that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote’ (Schumpeter 1942). However, recently diverse wave of democracy is blowing which is not affecting the trend of development as before.  This paper has explored the current state of interrelation between democracy and development in this contemporary era based on secondary data and empirical knowledge which may refer to a clear view of current global issues related with the interrelation between democracy and development. The organization and intellectual contributions of this paper are as follows. In the first section substantive definitions of democracy and development has been exerted. Relevant study of the literatures have been discussed in the second section. The third section develops a compact understanding about contemporary interrelation between democracy and development. Findings and conclusion have been shared in the fourth section.

Key Words: Democracy, Development, Freedom, Interaction between democracy and development.


For the time being about one hundred twenty three countries among one hundred ninety two countries are following democracy as their state principle. So it can be said that democracy is the most conventional state principle which has made the way of development easier. Nexus and interdependence of democracy and development has become a debatable issue in the contemporary world politics. Many intellectuals have done a lot of studies in this perspective. But still now there is an unsettled question – does democracy influence states to be developed or not? Currently different wave of democracy is blowing in different countries, which doesn’t exactly define any specific nature of the relationship between democracy and development. According to Cheibub, the correlation between economic development and democratization is probably one of the strongest we find in the social sciences; no matter what measure of democracy or of development that is employed, a positive correlation between them is always present in the data (Cheibub and Vreeland, 2012). Antithesis of this proposition also exists in the literature. Recently different dimensions have become added to the world politics. As like populism has taken place in many countries which may shrink the space of liberal democracy. But the process of development can’t be put off for penury of perfect democracy. Many countries are developing without following statutory democracy. So connection between democracy and development is till now about in obsession. However, this paper has explored the current state of interaction between democracy and development based on secondary data and empirical knowledge which may refer to a clear view of current global issues related with the interrelation between democracy and development.

Objectives of the study:

In the above mentioned context this study intends to pursue the interrelation between democracy and development from the global perspective. For this substantive definitions have been narrated to provide exact connotation of democracy and development. Existing literatures have been reviewed to deem the interrelation between democracy and development. It has been tried to depict the current state of interrelation between democracy and development based on the secondary sources analysis and empirical knowledge. Specific objectives of the study are: 

  1. To depict the substantive definitions of Democracy and Development.
  2. To review relevant literatures on the interrelationship between democracy and development.
  3. To make a compact understanding of contemporary affairs related to democracy and development. 
  4. Analyzing the current state of interrelation between democracy and development.


Both the quantitative and qualitative data from secondary sources have been used in this study. Secondary sources include journal articles, research reports, relevant websites, newspapers, books as well as the empirical knowledge of the author. Secondary sources have been deeply pursued to make the study viable. Empirical knowledge of the author has been exerted to analyze the current state of the interrelation between democracy and development.  

Substantive Definitions of Democracy and Development:

Though the endeavor of defining democracy as well as development began a long time ago, but now for different propagation of these propositions it demands for more substantive definitions. However, substantive definitions of democracy and development are mentioned in this section.

Defining democracy substantially

Prior definitions of democracy are supposed to give more emphasis on electoral voting to define the nature of democracy. Like in 1942 political scientist Schumpeter marked the competitive struggle for the peoples’ vote as a means of democracy. After a long time though another political scientist Robert A. Dhal referred new terminology “polyarchy” by identifying seven key criteria but among those criterion provision of relatively frequent, fair and free elections was foremost.

For a long time, the international community only focused on the importance of election as the determinant of democracy. But there was an implicit assumption that elections will not just a foundation stone but a key generator over time of further democratic reforms (Carothers 2002). On the other hand, as it has become increasingly clear with the emergence of new democracies in many regions of the developing world since the 1980s, the process of democratization entails not only a transition to formal democracy, but also the consolidation of such a democratic system (Menocal 2007).

However, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs has defined that democracy is more than a set of constitutional rules and procedures that determine how a government functions.  In a democracy, government is only one element coexisting in a social fabric of many and varied institutions, political parties, organizations, and associations. This diversity is called pluralism, and it assumes that the many organized groups and institutions in a democratic society do not depend upon government for their existence, legitimacy, or authority.

According to American political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair election; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens; a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens (Diamond 2004).

As the upshot, changes in the definitions of democracy happened in the 20th century.  In his “Theory of Justice”, Rawls puts this focus upfront: ‘The definitive idea for deliberative democracy is the idea of deliberation itself. When citizens deliberate, they exchange views and debate their supporting reasons concerning public political questions’ (Sen, 2009).

However, Amartya Sen has mentioned in his book “The Idea of Justice” that ‘Ballots do, of course, have a very important role even for the expression and effectiveness of the process of public reasoning, but they are not the only thing that matters, and they can be seen just as one part- admittedly a very important part- of the way public reason operates in a democratic society’.

So it can be said that in the contemporary politics peoples’ participation has been emphasized as well as the election to define democracy.  

Defining development substantially

Basically development has begun with the invention of fire and is continuing with line of the civilization. One of the simplest definitions of development can be considered as the objective of moving towards a state relatively better than what previously existed (Chembers, 1997). In this regard, development could mean any positive change in life (Sikuka, 2017).

Many early theorists have defined development as only economic progression of a state. But now it is considered that development is not purely an economic phenomenon but rather a multi-dimensional process involving reorganization and reorientation of entire economic and social system. Recent debates on a rights-based approach to development also focus on participation, accountability, and other elements that are very similar to those values underlying substantive forms of democracy (UNDP 2000). Stiglitz also defined development as a ‘transformation of society’ that goes beyond economic growth to include social dimensions such as literacy, distribution of income, life expectancy etc. (Stiglitz, 2003). Economist Amartya Sen also focused development as freedom – a suitably broad definition that incorporates not only economic indicators but also freedoms like human and political rights, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security (Sen, 1999).

According to Ben Daley, development can be defined as bringing about social change that allows people to achieve their human potential. An important point to emphasize is that development is a political term: it has a range of meanings that depend on the context in which the term is used, and it may also be used to reflect and to justify a variety of different agendas held by different people or organizations (Daley 2014).

Definitions of development vary from institutions to institutions as well as context to context. However, development is not only the rise of GDP or GNP but also the improved accumulation of socio-political synergies.

Study of Literature:

Many intellectual and theoretical analyses of democracy and development interrelation done by academicians and experts are available to study. For getting an explicit overview of democracy development interrelation, previous literatures are noted here briefly in this section.

Lipset observed that democracy is related to economic development, first advanced in 1959, has generated the largest body of research on any topic in comparative politics. It has been supported and contested, revised and extended, buried and resuscitated (Prezeworski and Limongi 1997). Mertin Lipset in his famous essay “Some Social Requisites of Democracy” has mentioned one of the strongest and most enduring relationships of democracy and development in the social sciences.

Today, even after the prolonged democratization wave that started in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1990s, the distribution of democracies remains highly skewed by level of per capita income (Boix 2011). Boix has mentioned in his writing that most of the literature has found higher levels of development (measured mainly by per capita income) increase the likelihood of democratic transitions, the stability of democracies, or both (Barro 1999; Boix and Stokes 2003; Dahl 1971, chap. 5; Huntington 1990, 39, 45; Przeworski and Limongi 1997).

However, one of the simplest explanations is that once people start to acquire higher levels of economic development and social maturity, they will begin to seek more accountability from their governments, thus achieving better democracy (Sikuka, 2017).

It is also considerable that several global historical events like World Wars, Cold War etc. introduced the practice of democracy in many countries which happened as the effect of development on political institutions. Besides, defining criteria of development determines the interrelation of development and democracy also.

If one follows Sen (1999b) and adopts a definition of development as ‘freedom’ – a suitably broad definition that incorporates not only economic indicators but also freedoms like human and political rights, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security, then by definition democracy must lead to development (Menocal 2007).

 Joseph Stiglitz also defined development as a ‘transformation of society’ which goes beyond only economic growth by including other social dimensions like literacy, distribution of wealth, health conditions etc (Stiglitz 2003). However, it can be said that democracy has some intrinsic values that lead to policy decisions in a way that is inclusive, participatory and transparent which can accelerate development.

Other schools of thought argue against of democracy-development nexus. It is said that democratic system fragment, diffuse and divide power among different stakeholders of the state which make decision making processes more time consuming, that has led many other analysts in academic and policy circles alike to argue that, in the developing world, authoritarian regimes may be better suited than democratic ones to promote economic development (Menocal 2007).

In his writing Boix mentioned that under the assumption that, in the absence of constraints, political actors prefer to control the state permanently (i.e., as dictators) and impose their preferred policies, they only accept democracy if it leaves them better off than a dictatorship because the expected policy losses from shifting to democracy (and losing control over government with some nonnegative probability) are smaller than the repression costs incurred to maintain a dictatorship (Dahl 1971, 14–16; Przeworski 1991, 26–33;Weingast 1997).

According to Halperin, ‘the appeal of the authoritarian-led approach has … at least something to do with its expediency, in comparison to the messy and time-consuming procedures typical of democracy’ (Halperin 2005).

In a seminal work on ‘Political Order in Changing Societies’, Samuel Huntington argued among other things that, as a result of economic development, political mobilization will increase faster than the appropriate institutions can arise, thus leading to instability. As a solution he advocated the merits of a strong one-party authoritarian system, state actors are also supposed to enjoy much longer time-horizons since they do not need to worry about the short-term politicking that arises from electoral cycles (Huntington 1968). Evans says on this matter is that, by its very success, the developmental state may, in the end, be its very own ‘gravedigger’: having successfully nurtured strong business and working classes through its policies, these then turn upon the state to demand greater political freedoms and, ultimately, democracy (which is a variant of the modernization argument). The trouble is, of course, that, in much of the developing world, democracy has been established without the prior achievement of such developmental success (Evans 1995).

Menocal has mentioned that much of the empirical evidence sustaining the thesis that authoritarian regimes are in general more effective than democratic ones in promoting rapid development comes from the so-called East Asian Tigers (Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore), where the state in each case oversaw and led a process of rapid economic growth and radical socio-economic transformation from the 1960s to the 1990s (Menocal 2007).

As the secret of these countries Peter Evans in his book “Embedded Autonomy” has described their institutional capacity or autonomy to promote developmental goals without being ‘captured’ by pluralistic interests (Evans 1995).

Ronald Herring (1999) has also argued in the case of India, that country has faced ‘terrific obstacles…in managing…[its] political economy…with one arm tied behind its back by its commitment to liberal democracy’ (Herring 1999). Though this proposition was introduced in the 19th century but it is more likely happening now-a-days in many developing countries like Bangladesh.

Adrian Leftwich (1995) has been much more explicit about the kind of political system that may be required to sustain a developmental state (Menocal 2007). As he has argued, when and if developmental states are democratic, they can be thought of as ‘authoritarian democracies’ (like Botswana), where basic characteristics of a democracy exist, such as free and fair elections, but where human rights are less of a priority and some stability is brought about by one party rule and strong control exerted by bureaucracies. Leftwich has also suggested that it is unrealistic to assume that political and economic development goals (alongside equity, stability and national autonomy) can be achieved simultaneously, at least from past historical experience (Leftwich 1995).

From the above discussion it has been revealed that constantly democracy isn’t interrelated with development positively. But there is a correlation between democracy and development which may be obvious as well as uncertain.

Compact Understanding of Contemporary Affairs:

Francis Fukuyama, an American Political Scientist has noted in his renowned book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ that “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (Fukuyama 1992). Fukuyama declared the introduction of liberal democracy in the perspective of abolition of Socialism in the Soviet Union. But presently lamenting grief of liberal democracy is increasing day by day in different countries. However, contemporary affairs related to democracy development interrelationship will be exposed briefly in this section. For describing the contemporary affairs, light will be shed on the current status of democracy and development in different countries.

The United States of America, known as the ‘Lighthouse of Democracy’ has chosen such a leader who has not a political background, doesn’t practice the principles of the Republican Party at all. Moreover, he doesn’t like to care for democratic values or institutionalization of democracy. Continuously the President is denying freedom of press as well as peoples’ opinion. The Economist in its Democracy Index (2017) has also described the American political system as a “flawed democracy”. In the name of ‘America First’ slogan, USA has become isolated from the international community. President’s irrational speeches and controversial policies have made the people not to trust him. Besides, people accuse him for corrupt practices and also for sexual harassment. So the question is how democracy will be sustained in the regime of such ill practiced state leader. Though condition of democracy isn’t so flourished in USA but economic influence of USA in the world economy is till now a very important factor. Despite facing challenges at the domestic level along with a rapidly transforming global landscape, the U.S. economy is still the largest and the most important in the world. The U.S. economy represents about 20% of total global output, and is still larger than that of China. Moreover, according to the IMF, the U.S. has the sixth highest per capita GDP (PPP) (Focus Economics 2018).

United States Economy Data

2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Population (million) 317 319 321 324 326
GDP per capita (USD) 52737 54657 56411 57559 59501
GDP (USD bn) 16,692 17,428 18,121 18,624 19,391
Economic Growth (GDP, annual variation in %) 1.7 2.6 2.9 1.5 2.3

Source: Focus Economics 2018.

So, it can be said that undemocratic practices of America isn’t influencing the progress of economy. Though only less than one third of the young generation in America think that democracy is obvious for development but economic growth is taking place there in full swing.

India, the largest democracy in the world, has developed its own incremental trends, primarily based on the influence of a pluralistic society with many minorities in terms of religion, caste, and language (Kainikara 2017). Fair electoral practice is one important indicator of democracy which was flawed in the last election of India in 2014. According to Association of Democratic Reform the source of the fund spent on election in India is unknown. Besides, ADR identified the other more alarming characteristic of the Indian Lok Shova that 30% of the candidates have criminal cases against them. The BJP led Govt. has also given into majoritarian assertiveness disregarding the basic rights of minority communities. Besides, the corrosive influence of money plays a decisive factor on the minds of majority of voters (815 million, 2014), who are poor and illiterate (Hasan 2018). Beside the largest democracy, India has the fastest growing economy in the country. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is on a recovery path after slowdown in the first quarter of 2017-18, and real GDP growth for the second quarter (FY18) increased to 6.3% from 5.7% in the previous quarter. The second half of 2017-18 witnessed a higher growth rate, and this is further expected to consolidate in the coming New Year, as the benefits of other reforms gain traction (CII Economy Matters 2018).

Source: CII Economy Matters (Nov Issue) 2018

Sectoral growth data of India is mentioning here from the report of Confederation of Indian Industry by name “Indian Economy in 2018: Current Status, Prospects and Challenges”. The agricultural sector registered moderate growth as erratic monsoon in several parts and flooding in some states impacted performance. Industrial growth accelerated sharply during the second quarter of FY 2018 and jumped to 6.9% from 1.5% in the previous quarter, on account of a sharp increase in manufacturing and electricity, gas, water supply and utility services. Manufacturing registered an impressive growth at 7% in 2QFY18 as compared to 1.2% posted in the first quarter. Services sector grew only marginally at 6.6% in the second quarter as compared to 7.8% in the previous quarter.

Source: CII Economy Matters (Nov Issue) 2018

So, it is revealed that in spite of undemocratic practices Indian economy is growing continuously. Pranab Bardhan has mentioned in his lecture that it is a paradox even for those who believe in a positive relationship between economic equality or social homogeneity and democracy. India’s wealth inequality (say in land distribution and even more in education or human capital) is one of the highest in the world. Indian society is also one of the most heterogeneous in the world (in terms of ethnicity, language, caste and religion), and social inequality, a legacy of the caste system, is considerable (Bardhan 2010).

China is another rising member in the cohort of next super power worldwide. According to the Wikipedia,  the socialist market economy of the People’s Republic of China is the world’s second largest economy by nominal GDP and the world’s largest economy by purchasing power parity. Until 2015, China was the world’s fastest-growing major economy, with growth rates averaging 10% over 30 years. Due to historical and political facts of China’s developing economy, China’s public sector accounts for a bigger share of the national economy than the burgeoning private sector (Wikipedia 2018). China reached all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 and made a major contribution to the achievement of the MDGs globally. Although China’s GDP growth has gradually showed since 2012, it is still impressive by current global standards (World Bank 2018). Focus Economics has revealed the following economic data of China-

  1. China Economy Data
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Population (million) 1,361 1,368 1,375 1,383 1,390
GDP per capita (USD) 7,124 7,662 7,948 8,103 8,806
GDP (USD bn) 9,694 10,480 10,925 11,204 12,241
Economic Growth (GDP, annual variation in %) 7.8 7.3 6.9 6.7 6.9

Source: Focus Economics 2018

However, the matter of analysis here is the political development in line with economic development of China. The politics of the People’s Republic of China takes place in a framework of a socialist republic run by a single party, the Communist Party of China, headed by General Secretary. State power within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is exercised through the Communist Party, the Central People’s Government (State Council) and their provincial and local representation (Wikipedia 2018). Lieberthal opined that China’s path to political reform over the last three decades has been slow, but discourse among Chinese political scientists continues to be vigorous and forward thinking (Lieberthal 2014). So, it is noticeable that without following democracy China has become the second largest economy of the world through authoritarian regime.

Re-elected President of Turkey is also taking Turkey towards the authoritarianism. In late June 2018, Presidential election in Turkey has returned incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey which was seen as a Muslim democracy has now converted into an authoritarian state giving Erdogan massive presidential powers (Hasan 2018). Recently Turkey’s economy has become hampered for the disagreeable relationship between America and Turkey. Besides, there are many complains of irregularities against Turkey’s president and political leaders of his party (Goldstone 2018). So development under this authoritarian ruler may become slow in Turkey.

Empirical evidences show that authoritarianism is especially rising in the developing countries. So, Bangladesh can be one example in this case. Bangladesh is such a developing country where democracy has been stipulated as a state principle. But recent huge partyarchy of Government and political turmoil have made the country undemocratic so far. General elections were held in Bangladesh on 5 January 2014, in accordance with the constitutional requirement that the election must take place within the 90-day period before the expiration of the term of the Jatiya Sangshad on 24 January 2014. The elections were controversial, with almost all major opposition parties boycotting and 154 of the total 300 seats being uncontested. Around 21 people were killed on Election Day (Wikipedia 2018). Since then, bitter politics have continued to dominate the political landscape having wider ramifications on the country’s democratic governance. The situation remains tense and volatile as major political parties are yet to come to any consensus as to the mechanism under which free, fair, and credible elections could be arranged (Zakaria 2018). So, many identify the running Government as authoritarian ruler. In spite of these political unrests, Bangladesh is making faster socio-economic growth. It has already become one of the fastest developing countries in South Asia.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of last ten years in Bangladesh is mentioning below:

Source: TRADING ECONOMICS.COM, Bangladesh Bank.

Despite poor governance record, the country demonstrated remarkable success in socio-economic development indicators, which, by many experts, termed as a Bangladesh Paradox (World Bank 2016). The life expectancy of people has also marked a sharp increase- from about 58 in 1990 to 72 in 2015 (Zakaria 2016). So, without following democracy properly Bangladesh is making astounding socio-economic development.

The Russian Federation is fundamentally structured as a multi-party representative democracy (Wikipedia 2018). But through the last election, President Vladimir Putin has strengthened his authoritarian regime. Misdeeds like controlling media and authoritarianism etc were complained against Putin from a long ago. But a firm labor market, higher commodity prices and rising oil production are expected to boost growth this year. However, high geopolitical uncertainty and the possibility of further economic sanctions remain key risks to the outlook (Focus Economics 2018). The Economist Intelligence Unit describes Russia as “authoritarian”. Others have labeled it as “hybrid regime” and “fake democracy” (Hasan 2018). 

Amartya Sen has discussed that Middle Eastern history and the history of Muslim people also include a great many accounts of public discussion and political participation through dialogues. But now the illusion of an inescapably non-democratic destiny of the Middle East is both confused and very seriously misleading – perniciously so- as a way of thinking about either world politics or global justice today (Sen 2009).

In case of Africa, for a long time authoritarianism is going on. The presidential election in Zimbabwe in late July, 2018 also came under international criticism for the violence that led to several deaths. The presidential election in Egypt in March 2018 was even heavier handed. Only one candidate was allowed to run for the presidency along with incumbent General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, who overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 (Hasan 2018). Besides, in many African countries like Congo, Sierra Leon, Lybia predators are ruling for a long year. Economic development of these countries is also not so good.

From above discussion it is revealed that in spite of having a history of democratic practice many countries of the world is going through present authoritarian regimes. It is noticeable that after the economic recession of 2007-08 decaying of democracy is occurring. According to Economist Intelligence Unit, about 89 countries of the world are backsliding in terms of democratic practice. In the opposition, development of democracy is taking place in only 27 countries. But populist leaders can’t sustain for their corruption and so many misdeeds. Malaysia is a glaring example of this.

Discussion and Conclusion:

Discussion of interrelationship between democracy and development is not a new thing. But contemporary diversified nature of democracy demands more discourse to demark the interrelation of democracy and development. From this study it has been found that many countries have become apathetic about the practice of liberal democracy in spite of their economic growth. In most of the cases democracy is only in paper. In the name of democracy rulers are establishing patrimonial ruling system through arranging faulty or monopolistic elections. In point of fact it can be said that rulers are misusing democracy to hold their power for longer period. But interestingly economic growth is not being affected by these authoritarian rulers. As they want to stay for longer time so they show the economic growth as an indicator of development of their regime. It is nothing but a cosmetic development where equal distribution of resources has not been established at all. Selim Jahan, Director of the Human Development Report Office stated in 2017,

 “To understand how developed a country is, we must also grasp how people’s lives are affected by progress. And to understand that, we must consider the ‘quality’ of the change that is being reported”.

So not only economic growth but also quality of people’s living should be considered as development indicator. Economic growth may take place under authoritarian regime but people’s lives are better in democratic regime. So deterioration of liberal democracy may not be a good sign for overall human development.