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Democracy and development

By Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira - posted Thursday, 6 August 2009

Democracy and development are two highly contentious issues in the development study. In general, democracy is a political system that is based on the right of all individuals to participate in the government, and often includes electing representatives of the people (Mansbach & Rafferty 2008, p. 151). Granting individuals with opportunity to choose, decide, or influence any decision taken by governments or organisations which directly or indirectly have an impact on their lives is an important aspect of development.

Development is defined as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy which encompass political freedom, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees and protective security (Development as freedom by A. Sen 1999). Sen further suggests that development is not just about economic growth but rather as means to expand the aforementioned freedoms.

Development is thus about creating “an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives” (UNDP 2009). This article will be divided into two parts. First, it will analyse the relationship between democracy and development, and second, it will demonstrate how development and democracy can serve as tools to address poverty.


In order to understand the relationship between development and democracy, it is essential to understand orthodox perspective of development and the current debates on development itself.

Many eastern scholars argue that there is no relationship between economic development and democracy because countries can still achieve considerable economic growth in the absence of democracy (Dead aid: why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa by D. Moyo 2009). Democracy and human rights are perceived to be western concept and therefore are incompatible with eastern values (Asian Values and Human Rights : A Confucian Communitarian Perspective by W.M. Theodore de Bary 2009). Such arguments are vigorously invoked by leaders in some Asian countries notably Singapore, Malaysia, China, Thailand, South Korea, China and Indonesia. They use the concept of Confucianism to explain the increase of economic performance.

They argue that some of the individual interests or freedoms should be forgone in order to allow states to pursue economic development of their citizens (“Human Rights and Asian Values” by A. Sen, The New Republic, July 1997). This argument has been constantly used by states in some Asian countries to justify their actions toward limiting individual rights.

It cannot be denied that economically China has outstandingly performed and has lifted millions of its people out of poverty in just less than 30 years. In fact China is considered to be one of biggest economies to challenge the USA and Europe. In spite of that, human rights abuses such as illegal detentions and persecution including death are widely documented.

The suppression of human rights activists in Tibet is one of the negative sides of China’s economic development model (Human Rights Watch 2009). Similarly, countries like Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew emphasised the concept of “Asian Values” whereby individual freedoms were curtailed by the states in the name of economic growth. Even though the economic transformation is highly noticeable in these countries, individual freedoms are constantly ignored.

In Singapore, for example, the government has enormous capabilities to limit citizen rights and to handicap the political opposition. In addition, many migrant workers in Singapore suffered various forms of abuses including physical and sexual violence, food deprivation, and confinement in the workplace (Human Rights Watch (PDF 52KB) 2009). This seems to suggest that countries can still achieve economic growth and improve the living standard of the people without having concerns with individual freedoms.


This notion of Confucianism, however, has been refuted by scholars such as Amartya Sen who claim that in facts there is no empirical evidence which suggests that the rights of individuals are a hindrance to development. While economic development does create some middle class in China, many rural dwellers continue to confront social problems.

A recent report suggests that suicide rates among China’s rural women are the highest in the world: many commit suicide by drinking pesticide (Chuanjiao 2007). The report further suggests that immediate problems such as stress and depression emanating from family disputes, low education levels and restricted social communication are among the leading causes of death both in rural and urban areas of China.

Sen, in fact, argues that development is much more than just economic growth. In his book on Development as Freedom, Sen argues that development is defined as freedom. According to Sen the objective of development is to enhance human capabilities which encompass political freedom, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency and security. Sen further argues that development will not bring prosperity to the people if the aforementioned freedoms are constantly denied.

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About the Author

Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira is pursuing an M.Sc in International Development at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.

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