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Disempowering New Democracies and the Persistence of Poverty



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In this paper, Thandika Mkandawire considers two processes taking place simultaneously in developing countries: the adoption of orthodox economic policies during a period of growing awareness of the pervasiveness and persistence of poverty, on the one hand, and the growing political empowerment of the majority of the population through processes of democratization, on the other hand.

During the last decade, international conferences, pronouncements by international organizations and bilateral donors, campaigning by non-governmental organizations and the declarations of national governments have brought the issue of poverty back onto international and national agendas, following decades when it had been displaced by excessive focus on adjustment and stabilization. At the same time, significant steps have been made toward democracy in many countries. This wave of democratization has also served to highlight the blight of poverty, partly because of the greater transparency in political and economic affairs, partly because of the political empowerment of the poor themselves, and partly because of the growing recognition that poverty impinges on democracy’s own prospects.

Until very recently, it was assumed either that democracy was a luxury poor countries could not afford, or that socioeconomic conditions in these countries were not auspicious for the implantation of democracy. But the emergence of democracies in social and economic conditions that had been ruled out by theories that insisted on a number of economic preconditions for its emergence has led to a new optimism about the prospects for democracy under widely divergent economic and social conditions. Unfortunately, however, this has also led to a view about democratic consolidation that assumes an extremely voluntaristic character, overemphasizing the role of political leadership, strategic choices about basic institutional arrangements or economic policy, and other contingent process variables. This focus on political crafting of democracies has bred complacency about the possibility of consolidating democracies in unfavourable structural contexts. The author argues that it is important to bear in mind both the ideational and the many structural impediments to the consolidation of democracy in the developing countries. One such constraint is the predominance of economic policies that hamper democracies from addressing issues of equity and poverty. Mkandawire focuses on the fact that new democracies have tended to be more orthodox than older democracies.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 12 Jan 2006
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8186
    From: UNRISD