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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 21: Disempowering New Democracies and the Persistence of Poverty

18 Jul 2006



In many developing countries today, orthodox economic policies are being implemented simultaneously with growing awareness of the pervasiveness and persistence of poverty; and the majority of the population is gaining increasing political empowerment through processes of democratization.

Until very recently, however, 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. So how is it possible that the two processes described above are occurring simultaneously?

There is a new optimism about the prospects for democracy under widely divergent economic and social conditions, as current trends fly in the face of theories that insisted on a number of economic preconditions for its emergence. But this has also led to a view about democratic consolidation that overemphasizes the roles of political leadership and strategic choices about basic institutional arrangements or economic policy. The focus on political crafting of democracies has bred complacency about the possibility of consolidating democracies in unfavourable structural contexts.

During the last decade, pronouncements by international organizations and bilateral donors, campaigns by NGOs and declarations by 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 toward democracy in many countries have 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.

Thandika Mkandawire is Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

Order DGHR PP 21 from UNRISD, 31 pages, 2006; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.