Development, democracy and cohesion

Critical essays with insights on Sierra Leone and wider Africa contexts

African countries face huge challenges in building democratic and cohesive societies that will enhance the wellbeing of their citizens. Even after more than half a century of independence, poverty levels remain high, the structure of their economies is dependent on the production of raw materials, civic rights are still strongly contested, democratic institutions do not respond robustly to citizens’ needs, and government policies are not always socially inclusive.

The challenge of building cohesive states and societies

The recently released book Development, Democracy & Cohesion: Critical Essays with Insights on Sierra Leone and wider Africa Context contains 45 easy-to-read essays is about the challenges of building developmental, democratic and cohesive states and societies. It draws on a rich body of development research and policy analysis spanning more than forty years. The essays provoke debate on some of the momentous economic, political and social changes occurring in Africa and elsewhere between 1990-2015.

Development, democracy and social cohesion are interconnected.

Development is not just improvements in GDP and household incomes; it is also about social protection and how power and social differences are organised and managed for the benefit of all. Indeed, Amartya Sen sees ‘development as freedom’, or improving human capabilities or the choices of individuals to live the type of lives they have reason to value. This suggests that it is difficult to separate economic, social and political processes in the study of development. Indeed, to talk meaningfully about development is to talk about democracy and cohesion.

From elusive to non-inclusive development

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, development was elusive in Africa as countries experienced economic crises and conflicts, and were encouraged to adopt stabilization policies that further depressed their economies. Improvements in global commodity prices between 2000-14 ushered in a period of high growth, especially in mineral-rich countries. Most countries used the upswing in revenues to upgrade their infrastructure.

Despite the rhetoric of transformation, there was very little manufacturing activity, agricultural productivity and diversification remained low, and the natural resource sector could not provide enough jobs for the large number of young people that eke out a miserable living in the overcrowded informal sector. Even though social expenditures improved, they could not match the investments in infrastructure and fell far short of what was required to build human capital for economic transformation and wellbeing. Lack of effective industrial policies, weak governance of the extractive sector, deep-seated corruption, and excessive trade openness made it difficult to translate high growth into structural transformation or changes in sectoral output and employment that would improve the welfare of most citizens.

The challenge of making democracy work for the poor

Similarly consolidating democracy and making it deliver development and work for the poor remains a challenge. It is clearly not enough to rely on the vote to transform leaders into accountable and active agents of development. It is important to build additional sets of institutions to direct development and democracy for the benefit of all. This requires the institutionalization of rights that will allow for the exercise of political choice and holding leaders to account, and ensuring that pro-poor advocacy groups and production-based interest groups develop capacity for organization and effective bargaining with those involved in policy-making. The formation of broad coalitions involving critical groups in the economy may create encompassing interests or visions beyond the specific interests of each group, and help to ensure that growth and redistribution are pursued in tandem instead of subordinating one to the other. It is important also to make electoral politics competitive as the fear of losing office can serve as an incentive for economic performance and redistribution.

As an ethnically diverse region with high levels of inequalities, Africa faces an additional challenge in building developmental, democratic, and cohesive societies. Especially in polarized settings, and where inequalities mirror group differences, ethnicity may shape choices and can be used as a tool to mobilize individuals for divisive collective action. High levels of inequalities may make it difficult to fight poverty as growth may be concentrated in sectors that are not within the reach of the poor. And if ethnic groups are geographically segregated, development may bypass groups that are not located in dynamic zones. Exclusion, in turn, may lower the potential for growth by weakening the productive capacity of the excluded groups.

Promoting cohesion as a central objective of development policy

Policies that focus only on cohesion often privilege elite bargains, or social integration at the top, which may not address the problems of the poor or development more broadly. Citizens may find it difficult to hold elites to account or get them to deliver developmentally uplifting outcomes. An alternative approach is one that places development squarely at the centre of cohesion-enhancing strategies. It focuses not only on providing incentives for the emergence of moderate leaders and inclusion of disadvantaged groups in governance institutions, but also on the need for leaders to be developmental in advancing public policies. It is concerned not only with elite pacts, but also with development pacts that reflect the interests of the poor. Such an approach has implications for the construction of party systems, the kinds of bargains struck at different levels of society, the growth strategies pursued, and the social policies embraced by governments.

Yusuf Bangura teaches international political economy at the Department of Political Science, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. He previously coordinated research at the UN Research Institute for Social Development (1990-2012).

Development, Democracy & Cohesion: Critical Essays with Insights on Sierra Leone and wider Africa Contexts and is available here.