Sometimes, with heavy heart, I pick up yet another example of ‘grey literature’ only to find I’ve wandered into an Aladdin’s cave of ideas. That was my sensation on reading Tim Kelsall’s new paper for the Developmental Leadership Program, on ‘Authoritarianism, democracy and development’. In just 14 pages, he summarizes a huge literature, with the aim of boiling it all down into some useful advice for an imaginary governance adviser to a developing country, whether autocratic or democratic or somewhere in between.
In two pages, and truly magisterial style, the paper charts the last 50 years of evolving academic thinking on the issue, as it has veered between a preference (in terms of implications for growth and development) for authoritarian and democratic systems. His conclusion is that the pendulum is currently nicely poised between the two.
He summarizes dozens of cross country studies to try and establish a relationship between regime type and economic development with ‘most have found there to be none’. However
‘On average, there appears to be no growth advantage or disadvantage to being authoritarian. That said, growth under autocracy tends to be more volatile than under democracy, and also to be more extreme. Reflecting this, most of the world’s big growth successes have been autocracies, but also most of its big growth failures (though this may be partly due to the fact that poorly performing democracies tend, before long, to get overthrown by autocrats). When it comes to realizing the MDGs, democracies have a slight advantage overall, and among and constitute a small majority among the extremely good performers. Among the extremely poor performers, autocracies are overrepresented.
If this leaves the relationship between regime type and development rather hazy, the reverse is clearer. At low-income levels, democracy is difficult to sustain, although it has proved possible in some cases. If, however, a minimalist democracy can be consolidated, the chances are that it will do better, developmentally, the more democratic it becomes.’
The paper then reviews the literature on what determines which autocracies fail/succeed and ditto for democracies, covering issues such as existential threats, whether internal or external, that force elites to put development before plunder, and the difference between individual v more institutionalised forms of authoritarian regime (institutionalised ones tend to fare better)
He boils all this down into a set of questions for the adviser. In an authoritarian setting they are:
‘Is the regime facing significant internal or external threats that cannot be assuaged by means of aid and resource rents alone? Does the regime have a credible development policy, focused on small-scale agriculture, or otherwise well-suited to existing factor endowments and their dynamic potential? Is the leadership embedded in a strong, institutionalized party, military, or bureaucracy? Does the leadership enjoy good enforcement and implementation capacity, thanks to its ability to take the long view and to prevail in rent-seeking contests? Has it solved some informational and coordination problems through appropriate state-business institutions?
If the answer to all these questions is ‘yes’, the regime would appear to have the political will to develop, and the policies and the institutions to do so.’
In a democratic setting, the questions become:
‘Is this a country in which all or almost all powerful elite groups have a commitment to democracy, either because they have been through a long period of democratic tutelage, or because they see democracy as the best means of resolving conflicts and maintaining at least some of their privileges? And are the popular forces in favour of democracy sufficiently strong and well-organised to ensure that democratic concessions are not merely cosmetic?
If the answer to these questions is ‘Yes’, democracy may be a viable alternative to authoritarian rule. And will it be a developmental democracy? Here, the same kinds of questions we asked of authoritarian states are likely to apply. Does the regime face an internal threat that cannot be averted by distributing unproductive rents? Does the regime have good policies? Does it have an effective implementation and enforcement capacity?
If the answer to most of these questions is ‘no’, there may be little point in our policymaker trying to encourage a democratic transition.’
Overall, it’s both a great summary of the literature, and a fascinating thought experiment of what a policy adviser might ask/say if they set aside their own assumptions about what works, or those of the donor government that employs them.
And here’s it all reduced to a doubtless over-simplified decision tree – hope you can read it.