Democracy and poverty in Africa

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Tue Jun 26 20:24:05 MDT 2001

I'm not much of a fan of Spiked, but I thought this was quite good:

>From Spiked...

      Ideology as absurdity

by Dr Julie Hearn

      Finally - a book that neatly and intelligently dissects the democracy
discourse that has come to dominate African political economy, and shows it
for what it is: an absurdity with tragic consequences.

      In Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance
in Africa (1) Rita Abrahamsen, a lecturer at the University of Wales,
systematically demonstrates the absurdity of attempting to construct a very
limited form of procedural democracy in material conditions of widespread
abject poverty. Abrahamsen builds her argument by positing and skilfully
exploring three key aspects of Africa's political economy that mitigate
against the development of democracy. She then examines the kind of minimal
democracy that is being promoted in African countries, and concludes by
showing the end-product of their union.

      The continent's political economy can be summed up in the following
way: a situation of no growth, no control and no political will. Instead of
addressing poverty, the structural adjustment era has brought a degree of
macro-economic stability combined with permanent recession. African GDP has
shrunk, living standards have worsened yet further, and growth remains as
elusive as ever.

      The demos in Africa are dirt poor, unemployed, underemployed and
desperate for an improvement in material living conditions. African
governments do not have the sovereignty to choose any economic policy other
than permanent 'belt-tightening'.

      Abrahamsen shows how, in the case of Zambia, trade-union-based
opposition leaders were forced to court donor policy. She writes about
states being caught between two constituencies - donors and their own
domestic constituency - with the donors always winning. This is the case
where political parties do have their constituency in the poor. More often
than not, opposition parties are just a form of recycled elites with no
mass constituency, as in the case of Kenya. In this situation, Abrahamsen
argues, they have as little interest in addressing the needs of the poor
majority as do the donors.

      The kind of democracy being advanced by international and national
elites is a form of democratic elitism - democracy with the demos
deliberately taken out. The poor majority are not only incidental as
political actors, but their needs are irrelevant to this redefinition of

      Abrahamsen traces the current conceptualisation of democracy to the
writings of Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter and more recent theorists of
democratic elitism. For these ideologues, the goal is not active
participation, but 'stability' and the political containment of social
deprivation. Mass political passivity, commonly and patronisingly referred
to as 'apathy', is seen as positively helpful and even as an essential
feature of stable democratic systems. Not only are the poor sidelined as
active citizens, but their needs are delinked from democracy.

      Theorists of minimal democracy go so far as to argue that years of
authoritarism have 'increased people's willingness to accept economic
hardship in return for democratic freedoms'. Abrahamsen cites Karen Remmer,
who writes of the 'democracy of lowered expectations' in contrast to the
'revolution of rising expectations' (2). In other words, minimal democracy
has nothing to do with a better life for the poor majority.

      So what happens when you bring this vision of democracy to a
continent entrenched in poverty? You undermine minimal democracy itself,
and are left with a mockery of political rights. Governments that were
unable to satisfy their domestic constituencies for lack of resources,
control and political will, began to chip away at democratic principles and
procedures in order to secure their own political survival.

      'It soon became apparent that many newly elected governments lacked
the capacity or the willingness to tackle criticism, dissent and
economically motivated protest without resorting to the authoritarian
measures of the past', writes Abrahamsen. 'Africa's hard-won civil rights
and political liberties were gradually eroded and abandoned' (3). This
vindicates her observation that 'the stability of democratic capitalist
polities everywhere is to a large extent contingent on social compensation
to the poor, and in sub-Saharan Africa such compensation is prevented by
sluggish growth' (4)

      Africa has borne the full brunt of capitalism's propensity to produce
underdevelopment. The international elites cannot openly admit that
capitalism has failed Africa historically - nor can they admit that each of
their political projects to disguise the fact has exacerbated the problem
further. So they are forced to construct an ideology of the absurd.

      This ideology's most recent form is the minimal democracy discourse
that accompanies the policies of structural adjustment - that is, permanent
recession. With the use of florid terms such as 'empowering the poor',
spending on social services in Zambia was cut from 7.4 percent of GDP in
1991 to 0.4 percent in 1993 (5). (No wonder, then, that a few years later
'basic needs' were rediscovered by the architects of the current poverty
reduction discourse.)

      That such a blatantly unconvincing ideology ultimately fails to
convince is not surprising. However, what does continue to surprise is the
extent to which democrats around the world have believed the absurdity and
legitimated it, thus allowing the ideas of the international elite to

      Dr Julie Hearn teaches development studies at the School of Oriental
and African Studies, University of London.

      (1) Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourse and Good Governance
in Africa, Rita Abrahamsen, London: Zed Books, 2000.
      (2) Abrahamsen, p79
      (3) Abrahamsen, p125
      (4) Abrahamsen, p77
      (5) Abrahamsen, p123

More information about the Marxism mailing list