Academic Papers

Democracy and Development in Global South

The relationship between democracy and development has been debated amongst scholars for many years. They assess whether democracy is critical to developing and changing a given society. For some liberal scholars, development is a transition of countries towards capitalism; a liberal model of governance emphasises individual freedom, a parliamentary or presidential system of election, and an election with the importance of private property and market. Hence, they assert that this system of government is essential for development.

In the last two decades, some countries in the global south, such as India and China, have emerged as significant economic and political powers. However, if we consider economic growth to be the driving force of a state’s development, then this can be achieved without a democratic system in place.

Development may be the proportionate increase in wealth and opportunities within a state. This includes quality of life, education and overall freedoms in the country. Liberal scholars may argue that democracy is necessary to achieve these criteria. This short paper defines the development and argues if democracy is a determining factor in facilitating development. To demonstrate this, I will provide different examples from different countries.

Although a country such as India is technically a democracy, they have a long history of poverty. Narendra Modi’s rise to power in 2014 has increased the suppression of the opposition and the curtailing of press freedom.

As such, presenting the Indian government as wholly democratic, similar to Western countries, may not be completely accurate. However, India’s economic growth, despite the flaws in its democratic system, is undeniable and has had a GDP growth of 5.5% over the last decade, with the GDP growing at an exponential rate. Apart from GDP growth, there has been a significant increase in manufacturing jobs in the country, which has diversified their exports and moved many people from the primary to the secondary sector.

The other country with no liberal democratic government is China, which claims to be Communist, and the state and Communist Party (CCP) play a vital role in the political economy. But, similar to India, China has also made massive strides in economic growth in the last 70 years. China is the second-largest economy in the world based on nominal GDP and has a vast manufacturing sector to back it. Apart from the GDP and industrial output, China has a comprehensive range of public transport and social welfare systems. The CCP’s heavy investment into infrastructure projects in major cities, including the transportation into these cities from rural areas, has created a large number of job opportunities for citizens to make use of their extensive workforce in an industrial or service capacity rather than just an agricultural one, similar to India’s recent efforts.

The Chinese style of government is critical to their economic progress. With a population of 1.3 billion, newly industrialised with a substantial traditional sector, this is a possible way to develop the country. The authoritarian governing style allows them to plan and control their economy more effectively than a Western country might.

However, neglecting political participation in a country could lead to highly dire conditions for the average citizen in the state. Although democratic participation does not guarantee citizens’ rights, the lack of democratic participation has primarily resulted in government regimes affording less comprehensive social rights and freedoms. For example, the minimum wage in Beijing, which has the highest minimum wage in China, is 25 yuan or approximately 3 pounds sterling an hour. Every other city in China has a minimum wage lower than this, with minimum wages being as low as 13 yuan in some areas. China’s use of cheap labour to grow its economy into “matured, service-oriented markets and industries” (Textor, 2022) rests on exploiting Chinese workers who have no participation or say in raising these wages. On top of exploiting the workers’ material conditions, much systemic discrimination exists within China, ranging from ethnic discrimination to sexuality. Racial or ethnic discrimination can be seen in the Uyghur’ re-education camps’ that “human rights groups believe… have detained more than one million Uyghurs against their will” to dilute or commit genocide against the group because of their ethnic and linguistic background.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights are also heavily restricted despite legalising homosexuality. Conversion therapy in China is not banned, and gay marriage is still illegal. A survey done by Ipsos found that 63% of Chinese people surveyed supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage or another type of legal recognition, and 66% supported the right for same-sex couples to adopt. In a democratic state with political participation, this support for LGBT rights would translate to legislative actions taken by the government to ensure equality amongst citizens and help create a better average quality of life for LGBT people.

 In India, much like in China, the increase in GDP growth has yet to translate into a proportional increase in wages for employees. Using average life expectancy, education level and per capita income like the Human Development Index (HDI) may leave India and China much further behind than Western democracies regarding development. In 2019, China’s Human Development Index was 0.768, ranking below Iran, while India was at 0.633, significantly below the world average. The United Nations primarily uses the Human Development Index to determine a country’s progress year after year.

Using the Human Development Index criteria to measure a country’s development accurately, we can see that the countries with the highest ratings are all robust democracies with high economic output and significant levels of equal rights and social development. The highest-rated country on the list, Switzerland, also employs direct democracy that allows citizens to call for referendums on new legislation or amendments made to currently existing legislation by members of parliament. As such, Switzerland may be considered to be more democratic than other comparable Western democracies. With an HDI that overtakes any other country, Switzerland and the other countries below it may prove useful case studies in determining the overall development of a country and whether or not democracy plays a role in it. However, many of these Western democracies with robust worker protections and legislated equal rights have also benefited from cheap labour and exploited workers. Western democracies allow private businesses within their countries to outsource their labour to countries like China and Vietnam to reduce costs and increase profits. This may indicate that the development of these Western democracies may be more to do with the exploitation of the global south rather than the democratic system in the country. The steadily increasing HDI of China further evidences this as it moves its workforce to the secondary and tertiary sectors with higher pay and better material conditions while continuing to operate under an autocratic regime with no political participation.

In conclusion, China and India have had significant economic growth, albeit they have approached it differently from the Western liberal system. Although India is a close liberal system of government, the state rather than the market played a crucial role. Hence, China and India should have followed the neoliberal free market to achieve economic growth. In addition, their achievement has been without a democratic system.


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Yusuf Gerashi

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