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LGD 2002 (1) - Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua


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Nominal Democracy for Development In Africa:
A Workable Concept?

Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua
Bank of Ireland Post-Doc Research Fellow,
Irish Centre for Human Rights,
National University of Ireland, Galway

This is a commentary published on 8 November 2002.

Citation: Appiagyei-Atua K , 'Nominal Democracy for Development In Africa: A Workable Concept?, Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD) 2002 (1) . <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>


1. Introduction

Previous attempts by Western governments to promote development in Africa did not factor in democracy and human rights as a key to development. For instance, the first UN Development Decade, no reference was made to human rights[1]. For that reason, during the second Development Decade[2], the 'basic needs' approach was adopted. The third Development Decade saw the introduction of the Structural Adjustment policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund[3], which again went with no conditionalities for respect for human rights. At best, the 'negative clause' approach of denying aid to countries whose governments were noted as egregious abusers of human rights was used.

However, with the end of Cold War, an about-face in Western government policy was introduced. That is, the Globalisation phase[4], premised on the notion that democracy is the key to development. This policy led to the introduction of the 'positive political conditionality clause' where support and aid are given to recipient governments as a reward or incentive to undertake democratic reforms. This stage is hailed as the triumph of the final merger between human rights and development, indicating an adoption of the positive relationship between rights, democracy and development. This is supposed to involve participation at the national level. At the local level, grassroots participation is said to be promoted through civil society, represented mainly by development and human rights NGOs. Yet, the key question is, is the theory behind the proposition sound? And if the theory is not sound, will it work?

This commentary is devoted to answering these questions. The conclusion reached is that although, on the face of it, the Western idea of rights and democracy, what I refer to as nominal democracy, establishes a positive relationship between human rights and development, in reality and in practice, it fails to do so. The reason is that the Western notion of rights, together with its accompanying democratic arrangement, is not comprehensive enough to cover and recognise, inter alia, socio-economic civil rights whose exercise would enable ordinary members of the community to take part in attaining their socio-economic development. Socio-economic civil rights also act as the key to claim for, and for the exercise of, political civil rights and political rights proper. The cumulative result of the exercise of these rights is the attainment of a balanced, holistic and sustainable notion of development. In the absence of that development for Africa is doomed unless the concept and approach change.

2. Overview of the Democracy-Development Linkage

The major viewpoints representing the Western position of development from a liberal rights perspective finds reflection in the works of scholars such as Mancur Olson[5], and others[6]. Their works analyse the linkage between democracy, freedoms and development and the conclusion they reach is that democracy does not inhibit economic development, but rather promotes it. For example, Olson strongly contends:

But individuals need their property and their contract rights protected from violation not only by other individuals in the private sector but also by the entity that has the greatest power in the society, namely the government itself. An economy will be able to reap all potential gains from investment and from long-term transactions only if it has a government that is believed to be both strong enough to last and inhibited from violating individual rights to property and rights to contract enforcement[7].

Economics, apart from moral and political factors, was responsible for the British, French and American revolutions that were unleashed in 1688, 1776 and1789, respectively[8], though this fact seems to have been forgotten by the Americans, Britons and French[9]. But economics was the principal motive. The revolution was about economic freedom and economic growth for the middle class who saw it prudent to couch their claims in the language of political rights and freedoms and founded them on moral grounds to gain widespread support and appeal. According to Quashigah:

'the doctrine of natural rights' therefore 'arose from the specific needs and ambitions of a group - the middle class'.

It was a practical historical concept which did not force itself onto human exigencies of the period, but was rather fashioned out of the human exigencies of the times. In this doctrine of natural rights we saw bold steps being taken by legal and political philosophers to uplift those basic rights needed for the support of the then emerging production relations into a category of rights which were enforceable against the rulership[10]. Olson's analysis, couched in a typical neo-Lockean fashion, affirms this assertion[11].

On the face of it, these conclusions are significant in making a claim for a positive relationship between human rights and development, that is to disclaim the contention that development can be traded away for rights[12]. However, these analyses are defective and short-sighted. They only aim to argue for the protection of the interest of the entrepreneurial, corporate class from governmental interference and abuse. They do not tell us about how, after the necessary protection has been secured for entrepreneurial take-off through the instrumentality of nominal democracy, the gains of the capitalists are achieved. Neither does it tell us whether or not the process of attaining economic growth is morally justified. The analyses fail to place into perspective the fact that extension of political rights and democracy to the poor, slaves and women in the West was only granted after the entrepreneurial elites became convinced that property rights, if protected by law and through other structural arrangements, would not pose a threat to their economic activities. It would clothe the system with legitimacy. Only an analysis in the context of a normative theory of exploitation of labour is able to account for these defects, about how property was acquired in the first place and how it is used for further exploitation. Also, the analyses do not consider the role and impact of the unbalanced relationship that subjects less industrialised states into a subordinate status and forces them to unfavourable trading relations with the industrialised states.

Based on Olson's analysis, it means that the rich nations are rich simply because they give room for the respect of economic freedoms (not economic, social and cultural rights) and civil and political rights[13]. This view is representative of the Lockean/Neo-Lockean notion of property acquisition. According to Locke, property is obtained when an individual mixes his labour and thereby lays claim to a part of the world which is the common heritage of the humankind so long as he does not take more than what he needs and also leaves some for others to appropriate[14]. This appropriation of private property is to be attained in the context or environment of a civil society[15].

Robert Nozick[16], Peter Bauer[17], and others who build on this analysis claim that private property is justly acquired through voluntary exchange or by laying claim to something that does not belong to anybody else, but not simply taken from other people. Thus, according to Bauer, 'incomes, including those of the relatively prosperous or the owners of property, are not taken from other people. Normally, they are produced by their recipients and the resources they own and are not misappropriated from others' [18]. Such property, thus supposedly justly acquired cannot be taken away from the owner by any political authority, no matter the nature of its democratic composition[19]. It is also claimed that redistribution not only distorts the market signals but also abuses the rights and democracy of the people by taking what is justly acquired by someone and redistributing it to others. Thus, in the economies of the industrialised world the invisible free hand should be allowed to socially allocate resources and benefits[20].

The fundamental flaws with this claim include the fact that the theory of just acquisition is out of touch with real-world concerns. Either it does not take into account the years of exploitation through slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism, or it justifies them. Monopoly power can be used to amass endless wealth no matter how wasteful and how far above cost the capitalist will set his/her prices without being condemned.

Thus, by failing to draw the proper historical links with their theory[21] they detached it from reality. This weakness exposes them to another criticism regarding the notion of just acquisition of property. As contended by David Schweickart in reaction to Nozick's theory of Entitlement:

Early capitalist accumulation derived from the theft of common land, the slave trade, the extermination of native peoples, and other assorted horrors. Just acquisition and voluntary exchange had little to do with it. (Nor have they to do with much of the subsequent capital accumulation, as countless financial scandals, our own savings and loan debacle among them, make evident)[22].

The undue emphasis on individualism and uninhibited concentration of wealth in the name of consolidated individual property rights by the Western states, and the twisting of Adam Smith's concept of the 'invisible hand' have enabled a small number of people and firms to gain disproportionate control over the direction of the world economy. Robert Dahl expresses the view on behalf of scholarly students on political power that in America and other democracies:

'key political, economic and social decisions are made by 'tiny minorities''[23].

This, according to the Ungerian conception of empowered democracy, is anti-democratic[24]. Secondly, the consolidated private property which accepts the 'task-definition'-'task execution' dichotomy[25] is not only anti-democratic but also disempowering. It legitimises inequalities of wealth which in turn numbs the people's ability to question acquisition of ill-gotten wealth which has relegated them to a condition of economic despondency, and consequently, a state of economic dependency on others. The question of exploitation here involves abuse of rights of those who are left at the mercy of the exploiter. It is realised that these analyses are left out of the Olsonian theory of democratic/rights-based development because their work seems to concentrate on protection of private property against the state, not protection of the popular sector against abuse by non-state actors. This is not seen as undemocratic since Olson's conception of democracy is the nominal type; but not the developmental-oriented type that aims at developing human capacities through the active and full participation of citizens in controlling their own destinies[26].

3. A Democratic Theory of Economic Exploitation

In presenting his democratic theory of exploitation, Schweickart argues that the fundamental dialectical innovation of the democratic theory is that it concerns itself with a concrete project that represents an alternative vision:

'the specification of a model of an economically feasible, morally desirable alternative to capitalism'[27].

The model is designed by drawing on theoretical, historical, and empirical research, all the while guided by the democratic heuristic. Schweickart's feasible, desirable, fully democratic economy must be an appropriate synthesis of three elements:

  • workplace democracy;

  • a free market for economic goods and services; and

  • social control of investment[28].

But the central concept is economic or workplace democracy. The question that fostered this concept of democracy is: why do workers not elect their bosses? '

[I]f ordinary citizens in Western democracies are competent enough to elect their mayors, governors, presidents, and a host of other political officials, are they not competent enough to elect their own workplace managers?[29] .

If the right of the ordinary citizens to define and determine for themselves how they should chart their destinies is taken away from them and vested in their political leader only, they will not do better in choosing the right political leader during periodic elections. Their ability to think for themselves is lost.

The sense in Schweickart's concept of workplace democracy is that rights exercise takes place at two levels, the micro and the macro, with each exercising an influence over the other. Respect for conventional civil and political rights are supposed to insulate, protect and facilitate the exercise of socio-economic civil rights. Socio-economic civil rights are civil rights which are to be enjoyed and exercised at the local, micro or private level. Their exercise and enjoyment are supposed to lay the foundation for their holders to be more politically conscious and to influence politics at the macro level. In other words, effective respect for and guarantees for the enjoyment of socio-economic civil rights will help people to better enjoy and exercise their civil and political rights. But, unfortunately, in most instances the conventional civil and political rights are hijacked at the macro-level which then disrupts the unfettered exercise of socio-economic civil rights. This is the result of the exercise of rights from the Western perspective to attain development in the less industrialised world. The nature of development attained in this fashion is lopsided. Development goes to the benefit of the rich few who benefit from the political-economic arrangements. It is then supposed to 'trickle down' to the underclass. But this type of development is not holistic since it is measured in terms of economic growth only without consideration of the spiritual, moral, emotional and other aspects of development of the community. It is also not holistic because of its lopsidedness. Neither is it sustainable.

Thus, referring to several examples on the efficiency of workplace democracy, Schweickart comes to this crucial conclusion that:

'democracy, it turns out, has positive economic as well as political and moral significance'[30].

It is observed here that Schweickart and Olson come to the same conclusion. The fundamental difference between them, however, is that while Olson emphasises democracy at the macro-level (through exercise of civil and political rights only). Schweickart does so at the micro-level (through socio-economic civil rights). Therefore the conclusion is that nominal or electoral democracy[31] alone does not account for the economic development of the industrialised democracies. In the industrialised democracies, freedom for the ordinary class is not respected. In other words, nominal democracies and liberal rights exercise can indirectly serve as tools of oppression against the weak and pre-developed members of the community by creating unlimited space to protect the interest of those who have access to consolidated private property while blocking the under-represented from enjoying the same. In support of this conclusion, one can refer to Dahl's claim that:

'capitalism is persistently at odds with values of equity, fairness, political equality among all citizens, and democracy'[32].

The introduction of democracy and capitalism in Africa during the era of globalisation has involved an application of the same concepts of nominal democracy and the institutionalisation of democracy to protect the property, commercial and political interests of the ruling elite in African states. The adoption and incorporation of this approach to development in Africa does not hold much hope for the majority of ordinary Africans, the marginalised entities. It is therefore my contention that the key developmental issue in Africa does not lie so much with macro-level democracy but, first, with micro-level democracy. The macro only acts as a smokescreen to protect and justify the injustices that take place at the micro-level by non-state actors, in the economic sphere, often the big multinational or 'global' corporations[33]. It is important to note that it was not until quite recently that non-state actors were recognised as perpetrators of rights abuse[34]. Even there it was the political abuse perpetrated by armed insurrection groups that led to this development[35]. Thus, Olson's assertion that democracy provides security of property and guarantees for long-term economic development is only true where one sees the role of the state as acting as the economic police agent for capitalism and the middle and upper classes. It is governments that issue the charters of incorporation that allow corporations to come into being. The same governments bestow privileges and authority on corporations, such as tax breaks and 'a favourable investment climate'. About 12 years after institutionalisation of these reforms, one will have to go back and compare the indices and see if the concept has worked and will work.

Notes and References

1. From 1960-1970. It is referred to as the growth-oriented approach which involved the implementation of the modernisation theory and an improvised form of Keynesianism.

2. But this approach was cut midstream to enable a return to the growth-oriented approach that was implemented hand-in-hand with the 'negative' political conditional regime.

3. Also labelled the 'lost' decade. It involved the introduction of the SAP which was implemented in two phases - the 'classical' SAPs (1980-1985) and neo-SAPs (1985-1990).

4. From 1990 to date.

5. M. Olson, 'Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development,' (Sept. 1993) Vol. 87 No.3 American Political Science Review, 567.

6. Eg; The Economist, August 27, 1994 at 9.

7. Olson, supra note 5 at 572.

8. K Quashigah, 'The Philosophic Basis of Human Rights and its Relations to Africa: A Critique,' (1992) Vol.2 Nos 1&2 Journal of Human Rights Law and Practice, 22.

9. The Economist, supra note 6 at 9.

10. K Quashigah, supra note 8at 34.

11. See details below.

12. In fact, that is the contention of the columnist in the Economist who then uses Olson's work to support its claim.

13. Missing these important paradigms, one is not surprised to read the conclusion of The Economist, that there is a close correlation between political freedom and prosperity because 'nearly all of the richest countries are free (meaning, among other things, democratic) and nearly all of the poorest countries are not'. Ibid, 15.

14. John Locke, Two Treatises of Civil Government, 2nd Treatise (London: J M Dent & Sons, 1955); D Schweickart, 'A Democratic Theory of Economic Exploitation Dialectically Developed,' in Roger Gottlieb, ed; Radical Philosophy: Tradition, Counter-Tradition, Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 101 at 104.

15. C Taylor, 'Modes of Civil Society,' in (1990) Vol. 3 No. 1 Political Culture, 95.

16. R Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

17. P Bauer, Equality, the Third World and Economic Delusion (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1981).

18. Ibid, 12. These resources would include the capacities and motivations that the rich possess which they utilise to make economic strides. Ibid, 19ff.

19. Nozick, supra note 16.

20. Friedrich Hayek, New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and the History of Ideas (London: Routledge and K Paul, 1978).

21. Contrary to Nozick's claim.

22. Schweickart, supra note 14 at 105.

23. cf. Thomas Dye and L H Ziegler, The Irony of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics, 4th ed (North Scituate: Duxbury Press, 1978) at 1.

24. See, eg; Robert M Unger, False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Social Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and, Knowledge and Politics (New York: Free Press, 1975).

25. This, according to Unger, involves the making of decisions by directors and managers of corporations and leaving their execution to the workers without involving them in the process of decision-making. See R.M. Unger, Social Theory: Its Situation and its Task (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). This analysis confirms the point being expressed in the theory of community emancipation about the absence of exercise of socio-economic civil rights.

26. Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

27. Schweickart, supra note 14 at 116.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid, 117.

30. Schweickart, supra note 14 at 117.

31. See David Gillies and Gerald Schmitz, The Challenges of Democratic Development: Sustaining Democratization in Developing Countries (Ottawa: North-South Institute, 1992). For detailed exploratory analysis of the various brands of democracy see the same.

32. R Dahl, 'Social Realities and 'Free Markets', (Spring) Dissent, 224 at 226. cf. ibid, 23.

33. David Korten, When Corporations Rule the World (West Hartford: Kumarian Press, 1995).

34. See, eg. D Matas, No More: The Battle Against Human Rights Violations (Toronto: Dundurn Press Limited, 1994) on the difficulties Amnesty International has faced in seeking to extend their mandate to cover human rights violations of non-state actors. Also, Michael Stohl et al make us aware of the importance of assessing rights abuse by non-state actors in order to give a holistic assessment of the human rights in a country. See M Stohl et al, 'State Violations of Human Rights: Issues and Problems of Measurement', (1993) Vol.15 Human Rights Quarterly, 592; and Chapter 5 in general.

35. Matas, supra note 34.