Democracy, authoritarianism and development

The debate whether large-scale development is best achieved by democratic or authoritarian regimes has been a pertinent question today in the world, particularly Pakistan. The answer is not simple. To start with there is little doubt in the veracity of the argument that the most developed countries and societies are the ones with well-entrenched democratic political systems. Most of these states are situated in the West-North America and Europe. However, there are several non-democratic countries which have achieved significant levels of development.

Development itself is indeed a complex construct with so many lower level concepts. In other words, the phenomenon and process of development is the sum total of so many variables. Then development has many facets. Generally speaking, development could mean high economic growth rate, significant presence of sophisticated infrastructure, high standard of living of majority of people, including lower levels of poverty and unemployment. It must also mean that the people are free of coercion and think and act according to their conscience. Then it also includes a mental state when the people think that they have every right to do whatever pleases them keeping within some fundamentally important limits and not to harm others or the communal and social harmony. A state or society cannot be called developed when it is not having even one of the above-mentioned factors and indicators.

In Pakistan, this description of development has important implications. The state and society is not only lacking on these counts of development but the process of development does not seem to be on the right track. Insofar as development which Europe and the US have made since the dawn of the 16th century, various religious, social, scientific, political and economic revolutions have been behind this high level of development. These revolutions and cataclysms include religious reformation, opening of the human mind and unleashing of reason, the birth of the modern nation-state, institutionalisation of liberal education, myriads of scientific inventions and discoveries and transforming of these into a wide range of technologies, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries resulting in market economies and establishing and flourishing of democracies. Therefore, in the West the process of development is quite stable and well managed.

Contrarily, there are many other states in the world particularly in Asia which have made significant infrastructural development with or without majority of people achieving a high standard of living. The case of Malaysia is significant. The country not only made noticeable economic development but majority of its citizens have been enjoying a high standard of living. However, at the same time Malaysian regimes have always been lacking real representativeness. China is another example. Beijing has improved its physical infrastructure immensely. However, the majority of China’s nearly 1.5 billion inhabitants’ life standards have never been near the level of residents of Western states. More importantly, the prevalence of fundamental human rights and liberties are far from satisfactory.

Here it is also important to mention the example of Germany which made significant level of infrastructural and economic development under Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, who came to power through representative democracy in 1933 but transformed Germany into a totalitarian state. Even the first freeway or expressway, which in Pakistan is called motorway, was built in the era of Hitler. But his reign cannot be called a true developmental era because it was him who pushed the great nation into WWII and ultimately led to its catastrophic downfall.

History teaches us one important lesson that true and sustainable development is only possible under democratic regimes having an accountable and transparent system with rule of law and meritocracy. This is an important lesson for all Pakistanis. But in order for a real process of development to start in the country, we must have quality democracy, more importantly a thriving democratic culture which, candidly, is not there.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th, 2018.

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