Point of View

Democracy and Good Governance

National governance can be defined as the processes of decision-making and implementation followed by state institutions. Good governance represents governance which enhances the welfare of all citizens of a country rather than benefiting elites only. Democracy is one form of governance. Democracy’s ideal distinctive features, unlike other governance forms like monarchy, include representativeness, accountability, participation and transparency. The hope is that given these distinctive features, democracy will lead to better governance than other forms of governance.

However, the reality is that not only in Pakistan but in most developing countries, the advent of democracy does not lead to better governance immediately. The quality of governance often deteriorates in the short and even medium-term as the representativeness introduced by elections does not immediately provide accountability, participation and transparency, which are the true pillars of good governance. This often leads to disillusionment with democracy and assertions that democracy is not well-suited to the situation of developing countries. It is argued that such countries need a transition period where an unelected government cleanses national politics of corrupt politicians through ruthless accountability. It then holds free and fair elections from which honest and committed politicians emerge who institute good governance and rapidly lead the country to progress.


This argument looks attractive but is fallacious. The global experiences show that such digressions rarely deliver the promised good governance. The global pattern is quite similar in most developing countries. Non-elected governments initially produce administrative reforms and rapid economic growth. However, this initial era of good governance soon ends in economic stagnation, political violence and conflict which wipe out the initial gains and leave countries even worse off.

The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. In the view above, the causes for poor governance are seen as rooted in the existence of a thin crust of corrupt politicians which has seemingly descended from Mars and hijacked national politics. However, the reality is more complex. Politicians actually emerge from and reflect the realities of societies. Poor governance actually emerges from the way the societies of most developing countries are structured. Global experiences show that in-egalitarian societies, i.e., those with high inequality and ethnic divisions and tensions, and low education, income and urbanization, generally struggle to achieve good governance and progress. Such societies produce weak institutions, from which emerge self-serving leaders, who provide poor governance and follow policies which hamper progress and increase in-egalitarianism. This increased in-egalitarianism further perpetuates poor governance. Thus, in most low-income countries there is a vicious cycle between in-egalitarianism and poor governance irrespective of the forms of governance, since accountability, participation and transparency are weak in all of them.

This vicious cycle means that the rich and powerful are able to monopolize power at all levels even though democracy aims to give participation to poor people. A recent study conducted by Patten DevelopmentOrganization found widespread entry of property dealers, lawyers and landowners into Islamabad’s local government system on seats reserved for landless farmworkers or labourers. The examination of the election papers of 41 councilors belonging to two mainstream parties returned on such seats showed that 35% are businessmen, 15% are property dealers, 8% are professionals and only 11% meet, that too partially, the requirements for such seats in the ICT Ordinance.

This vicious cycle cannot be broken by removing a thin crust of politicians because without deep societal changes, the new leadership that will emerge will be similar even with free and fair elections. Thus, short periods of unelected rule of even up to ten years fail to bring about sufficient change in society to fundamentally alter things. In fact, the lack of representative rule usually exacerbates tensions in society and leads to major violence under unelected governments. Recognizing the limits of such minor tinkering through short durations of unelected rule, many movements have adopted the path of revolutions with the goal of fundamentally altering societies to end in-egalitarianism rapidly. However, revolutions have a very mixed track-record. In some countries, revolutions were followed by the establishment of one-party dictatorships, e.g., the USSR and China. While there was some progress in reducing in-egalitarianism initially through land reforms and nationalization, the long-term results of top-down rule were horrendous. So, despite land reforms, China experienced a massive famine in the 1950s which killed 20 million people because of state policies forcing people to collective farm production. State oppression led to the murder of hundreds of thousands of people during the Cultural Revolution.

In other states, revolutions were followed by elected regimes, e.g., in USA and France. But even in those places there was no immediate and dramatic improvement in governance. The high levels of good governance that we see took more than a century to emerge there. This brings us to the sobering conclusion that while revolutions are a good tool to overthrow monarchs and dictators, they are not a good tool to produce good governance rapidly. The good governance that we see in western countries today emerged gradually due to a series of social movements led by civil society, such as women’s and civil rights movements, after the initial revolutions. While revolutions aim to overthrow the current systems, social movements aim to work within the existing weak democratic system to help improve it. So, such countries which already have a weak democratic system do not need the sledge-hammer of revolution to overthrow the system but the chisel of social movements to help refine and strengthen it by working to enhance accountability, participation and transparency under representative governments.

People grumble that by its eighth year and after one civilian transition, democracy should by now have delivered major reforms in accountability and bureaucracy as well as a much higher level of good governance. But do such young democracies ever do that? Near-septuagenarian democracies like India and Sri Lanka are only doing somewhat better than Pakistan on these issues. Thus, misconception exists about how quickly democracies mature to produce high-level governance. Yet, these arguments do not absolve the democratic elites to speed-up the efforts towards providing good governance to the people of Pakistan.

Political corruption is the issue which delegitimizes democracy in the eyes of many people and rightly so. However, there are two slightly different ways of viewing corruption. The first view is melodramatic. It holds that corruption is a curse, and without its removal countries cannot develop at all. Thus, eliminating corruption must come before all else. The view also holds that corruption can be quickly eliminated through short durations of non-representative rule. The second view on corruption is more realistic. It holds that corruption is a problem which slows down development. However, it also notes that several countries have managed to develop rapidly despite corruption and corrupt practices prevailing. This view also holds that eliminating corruption is a long-drawn process which consequently can only be accomplished under elected regimes. Empirical evidence supports the second view.

Global reviews of the Transparency Corruption Perceptions Index (TI) reveal that no country has eliminated corruption, the highest score on it being around 90%. TI data from 1995 onwards also reveals no state which has improved its score massively and quickly through extra-legal or legal ways. A review of Pakistan’s region shows that national TI scores have improved by less than 1% annually over 20 years. Pakistan’s scores on the TI index are well within regional norms, with China, India and Sri Lanka being slightly better than Pakistan, but Bangladesh, Nepal, Iran and Afghanistan being below it. Above scores of 25%, one finds many states developing rapidly. Countries like India and China have managed to develop rapidly despite having TI corruption scores fairly similar to Pakistan (38% and 35% respectively compared with 30% for Pakistan). China scores (35%) only slightly better than us (30%) today and scored 22% in 1995 by when it had grown rapidly for long. Pakistani TI scores are highest today since TI’s 1995 inception, are increasing normally, and are not unusual regionally, but our compulsive obsession in justifying illegal acts to control corruption is unusual. While we stand for zero corruption, and all this argument is not for accepting corruption resignedly but against unrealistic beliefs about how soon and how it reduces and adopting appropriate means within democratic systems to reduce it gradually.

Thus, the evolution of democracy and the emergence of accountability, transparency and participation require patience. But many analysts argue that we cannot afford to be patient with democracy as the poor governance under it could lead to state collapse. However, this is also a myth. Democracy’s edge over other forms of governance is crystal clear here. Almost all states which have collapsed politically in the last several decades were autocracies and not a single established democracy has ever collapsed so far. There is little chance of a political collapse in Pakistan. In fact, the chances of a political collapse have actually reduced significantly as a result of major operations against religious and ethnic militants.

So, Churchill was right. Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. However, global experiences show that given sufficient effort by citizens through civil society movements, representativeness, accountability, participation and transparency does ultimately emerge under democracy, leading to better governance gradually.

The writer is a political economist, a Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley and the Executive Director of Inspiring Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

E-mail: [email protected]

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