Thursday, September 13, 2007

Democracy and Development – Giving ourselves the freedom to trust

The Hague, 13 September: In his key note address to the SID conference on democracy and development, four main points on “freedom and development” by former World Bank economist William Easterly triggered discussions throughout the day. [related story]

He first argued that democracy is generally a better long term bet for countries, in terms of economic growth and per capita income. It is no accident he argued that countries with low per capita income are non-democratic while countries with higher incomes are mostly democracies.

Second, he described democracy in terms of the freedoms of individuals – and a country - to reason, question, act, trade and choose their leadership and governance. While economic growth contributes to development, ‘growth of reasoning’ contributes to democracy. Both need to be unleashed. Emphasizing that “nobody is too poor to be free,” he argued that viewing poor people as unable to handle freedom/democracy is not part of a freedom agenda; nor is “telling the poor what to do” part of democracy.

Third, he concluded that experts – various kinds – do not have the reliable answers to guide countries towards sustainable development and democracy. In the absence of expert answers, he called for “ordinary people” to be given the freedom to “figure out” what they want to do.

Finally, the way these citizens and their countries are supported – though development cooperation or democracy building - is itself an exercise in democracy. Freedom includes freedom from foreign control. Too many conditions and advice from the supporters, even well-intentioned, precisely reduces the freedoms of the beneficiaries. According to Easterly: “If a government is democratically accountable to it citizens, then it should get aid with no strings.” Governments comprising warlords or aspiring gangsters, should be treated very differently.

Echoing participant Njeri Kabeberi who urged that we “give ourselves the freedom to trust,” Easterly described such freedom as a kind of education, he called on participants to promote and support initiatives that let others take charge of their destinies. Support means trusting others and letting them learn, and giving them space to make mistakes. As soon as you interfere to make ‘corrections’, they lose their freedom.

This debate will doubtless continue as the development community unites around aid effectiveness agendas - where donors work in harmony and with governments towards agreed joint assistance strategies - that some might see restricting the freedoms proposed by Easterly.

NIMD partners Njeri Kabeberi (Kenya) and Augustine Magolowondo (Malawi) react on the day’s discussions:

The conference was organized by the Netherlands chapter of the Society for International Development (SID). It was co-organized with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy.

Read more views by Professor Easterly on his web site

Euforic web page on governance

by Peter Ballantyne