Does economic development lead to greater democracy?

We tend to think, said a professor of political anthropology at a meeting I attended this week, that economic development leads countries towards democracy and to strengthening democracy, but it’s not so straightforward.

Economic development may be associated with democracies becoming more “shallow,” and Bangladesh, the country we were discussing, is an example. A Bangladesh professor at the meeting pointed out that all of Bangladesh’s great improvements in life expectancy, literacy, education, maternal and child mortality, and lifting people out of poverty have come since democracy was established in the country. But with economic growth at something like 7% a year the democracy has become shallower–with Bangladesh becoming effectively a one party state with the opposition emasculated.

Indeed, we have to look only at China, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states to realise that economic development does not necessarily lead to deeper democracy.

And what about the UK? We pride ourselves on being the founders of parliamentary democracy, but how deep is our democracy? The first-the-post system means that my vote has never counted in general elections because I’ve always lived in a safe Labour seat. Power is centralised and becoming more so. A referendum is, I suggest, associated with shallow democracy because, particularly when the campaign is full of lies, people vote based on issues that are little to do with the question of the referendum. We have a heavily biased press and threats to the legal system. And people in countries other than England, escepially Scotland, feel disenfranchised.

The trouble with a shallow democracy, said the professor of political anthropology, is that it leads to violence. People can’t find ways to make their voices heard and so resort to violence. That has happened in Bangladesh and has happened here in a smaller way.

So the grand narrative is that economic development doesn’t automatically leader to democracy or a deeper democracy and that political development–or perhaps we should call it development in governance–is equally important.

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