The Age of Democratic Resilience by Mohamed Salih

About the author:
M_SalihMohamed Salih is PhD in Economics and Social Science, University of Manchester, UK, 1983) is Professor of Politics of Development at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague and the Department of Political Science, University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Regional research interests, fieldwork, academic and policy research interests: Africa and Middle East and shortly in the English-speaking Caribbean.

This posting is an excerpt of the valedictory lecture of Mohamed Salih at the occasion of his retirement from the Institute of Social Studies. The lecture was held on 12 October 2017

Current academic views, media reports and policy and development practitioners often claim that democracy and development are declining or even ending. Mohamed Salih maintains that democracy is not dying but expanding beyond its classic form of representative democracy. What has declined, however, is educated democracy and authentic development that sides with the poor and critically embraces solidarity against want, hunger and fear, resisting tyranny and authoritarianism or confronting discrimination in all its forms.  

It is perplexing that the phenomenal expansion of democracy during recent decades has lately been greeted by suggestions in a considerable number of publications that it is in decline or has died. This, in spite of the fact that we live in an age in which democracy has flourished like never before. Democracy, and development, are flourishing in new spaces, institutional forms and practices. These capitalize on new freedoms democracy has unleashed and new technologies that have created millions of globally networked communities of interest, with a direct bearing on politics locally, nationally, regionally and globally.

I have lived over six decades of how development policy intertwines with African politics, living half of my age in the Sudan and the other half in Europe, as well as conducting research, teaching and offering policy advice for the larger part of my life.  A pessimist may argue that over five decades, during which fundamental social, economic and environmental problems have preoccupied academia, policy and practice, these problems are not only still lingering, but some have even been exacerbated, and new social problems have been piled upon the old. Moreover, the intensification of old and new threats to human survival and wellbeing such as poverty, persistent hunger and inequality, epitomized by the juxtaposition of foods that kill and famines that kill[1], climate change and biodiversity loss, are common features that unite the first and current decade of development. Rather than considering the glass empty, in my mind there remain reasons to stay optimistic, and find the glass is more than half-full.

Despite negative reporting on Africa’s recent democratic development, led both by the media and academics, data collected from the field show contrary results. In the case of Africa, the development and democracy trends between 1999 and 2016 are moderately positive. More importantly, critics fail to ask whether what is happening is a decline of democracy or the emergence of new spaces and forms of democracy. There are three developments that characterize the past two decades of democratic resurgence. Local and grassroots democracy have expanded in what can also be termed the fourth wave of democratization,[2] cyber democracy and electronic voting.

Firstly, citizens’ withdrawal from state-created political spaces to participate in local and indigenous forms of direct deliberation instead of representation is not new to Africa, but has taken immense proportions over the past decades. Youth, women, farmers, pastoralists, traders, and non-governmental and civil society organizations deliberate on local issues from water to health and from education to forestation. They also discuss soil and water conservation on their own or supported by like-minded transnational organizations. Those who declare the decline of democracy should go beyond national statistics to engage the emergent new forms of local level, community and grassroots deliberations practiced by the majority of the world.

Second, since the late 1990s, the rapid expansion and convergence of information and communication technologies has created new spaces for political engagement, which has expanded citizens’ freedom to exchange information, organize political action and social movements, and rediscover the growth of a new vocabulary of resistance. While democracy’s essential values have persisted, the forms and spaces of democratic practices have multiplied. Consider, for example, e-government, e-political parties, e-parliaments, e-civic networks and associations which have become prominent features of citizens’ vehicle not only for accessing information but also for using information to make government more responsive.

Third, already, during the 1960s, Western democracies started experimenting with electronic voting and achieved mixed results. Despite many disadvantages, e-voting creates huge possibilities for deliberation and influencing politics across the globe.

Democracy and development are the most cherished values defining the aspirations of every human society. Almost all political elites use democracy and development to bestow legitimacy on their system of governance. However, both democratic and authoritarian regimes often use democracy and development as instruments to legitimize their retention of power, which often imposes oppressive pathways for regulating and controlling the totality of citizens’ human affairs. In some developing countries, the state has even demanded that citizens should suspend their democratic rights and freedom in the wake of development until this cherished national project is accomplished. All too often, too, democratic majorities relish what is known in democratic theory as the “tyranny of the majority.” Absolute majority rule usurps political ideologies and practices that are an affront to democracy and human flourishing.

Democracy and development are about inclusion and ensuring that the rights of the minority are not forsaken by regimes that are discriminatory or in the business of widening the wedge between citizens according to their race, religion, sex, creed or region for short-term political gain. What has declined, in my mind, is not democracy but educated democracy; not development but authentic development that sides with the poor and critically addresses the main messages and meaning of development. For, if democracy is allowed to decline and development to die, there would be nothing left for humanity to celebrate by way of embracing solidarity against want, hunger and fear, resisting tyranny and authoritarianism or confronting discrimination in all its forms. In a nutshell, humanity is not complete without the pursuit of authentic democracy and inclusive and empowering development.

[1]I contrasted foods that kill as a metaphor for the rich over consumption of food, which causes obesity vis-a-vis famine that kills as a metaphor of severe food shortages among the poor, which causes hunger and famine (Mohamed Salih 2009).

[2] This characterization follows on Huntington 1990. The Third Wave of Democratization.

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