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Democracy and development look different from inside a jail cell

One of my most inspirational experiences lately was to meet with an African democratic opposition leader whom I had long admired from afar.

He earned his credentials the hard way — he spent years in jail under the dictatorial government of his country.

While in jail, he read the foreword to one extremely popular book on The End of Poverty. The author thanked the dictator who had jailed the opposition leader for the dictator’s “help and guidance” on the book, naming this same autocrat as one of “Africa’s new generation of democratic leaders.”

He also was not a big fan of statistical regressions that tell poor people when they are allowed to have democratic rights. He can’t understand why there’s a double standard: real democracy for rich countries, yet doubts about whether poor societies deserve to be free. Not to mention active support of aid organizations for authoritarian leaders. One aid organization gave their representative an award for creative financing of this same dictator while this opposition leader was in jail.

He knew that I am  in favor of democracy for poor nations, and he encouraged me to do better at making that case, partly on idealistic grounds and partly on pragmatic ones. I feel like I have let him down by not making more progress on this longstanding debate.

I am keeping the country and opposition leader unspecified, for fear of further harassment of this courageous activist by his country’s “new generation of democratic leader.”

Coincidentally, I read today a superb article by Carl Schramm on democracy and capitalism in the Fall 2009 Claremont Review of Books (alas the article itself is not available online). Among other things, Schramm takes down Thomas Friedman for his book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.”  Schramm says:

This is what happens in free market democracies, Friedman tells us — an unacceptable mess ensues when there are no expert overseers to direct our affairs.

According to Schramm, Friedman’s ideal system seems to be if

intellectual elites could rule us in a benign autocracy. And it likely would be benign, because intellectuals are … so nice.

You can keep all your experts, I’ll take one real democratic opposition leader anyday.

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8 Comments

  1. for another thorough insight into the mind of a visionary african leader, here is Bono’s analysis made in the wake of the visionary man’s ordering troops to shoot at peaceful demonstrators: http://www.ethiomedia.com/courier/bono_on_despots.html.

    Posted January 6, 2010 at 4:13 am | Permalink
  2. Manoel Galdino wrote:

    I am afraid that anyone which have a copy of the Book ‘the end of poverty’ will find out who is the dictator. This may facilitate to find out who is the democratic opposition leader.

    best regards,
    Manoel

    Posted January 6, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink
  3. William Easterly wrote:

    Manoel, no worries, this book thanked and praised multiple dictators.

    Posted January 6, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink
  4. nadeem haque wrote:

    Real democracy? Is there such a thing. Is this what we have in the US where money dictates policy?

    Posted January 6, 2010 at 9:00 am | Permalink
  5. Fernando wrote:

    Unfortunately the world is not so black and white.

    Nelson Mandela has been singing the praises of Fidel Castro for years and south Africa recently awarded him the Ubuntu prize.

    This for a country where the ruling elite is mostly white (just comapre it to Jamaica), there are no labor rights, blacks are excluded from the best paying jobs in the tourism sector and so on.

    But don’t take it from me, listen to black activitsts in the hemisphere:

    http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2010/01/african-american-activists-blast-cuba-on-racism.html

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDvENDarA3c&feature=player_embedded#

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxHvVNu_Vdk

    Perhaps is time to put human rights above ideology…

    Posted January 6, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  6. Matt Richmond wrote:

    “He can’t understand why there’s a double standard: real democracy for rich countries, yet doubts about whether poor societies deserve to be free.”

    This statement possesses so much spin my eyes are dizzy. The idea that poor nations are less able to support democracy is not an assessment on what they “deserve,” it’s an assessment on their ability to support effective democracy.

    There are very few people in the western world who would have the audacity or ignorance to say that poor people do not deserve freedom. Everyone deserves it, but life isn’t always fair… we live in the real world, not a fairy tale.

    Posted January 6, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  7. Inde Hewan wrote:

    - For all who tried to click on the link Alden provided above: it won’t work unless you first remove the dot he placed at the end.
    – Bill, the reference is not in the foreword (which is written by Bono) but in the Acknowledgements.
    – Manoel, actually you don’t need to have access to the physical book, as the relevant passage of the book can be had on the web: google [“end of poverty” “Africa’s new generation of democratic leaders”] and click on the chached version of the first entry. But for your convenience, here’s the passage: “In particular I would like to thank Africa’s new generation of democratic leaders who are pointing the way, including former President Alberto Chissano of Mozambique, President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, President John Agyekum Kufuor of Ghana, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, former Vice President Justin Mulawesi of Malawi, President Festus Mogae of Botswana, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia.” An assortment of dictators indeed, with very few democratic leaders sprinkled inbetween.

    Posted January 6, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  8. Caitlin Williams wrote:

    “This is what happens in free market democracies, Friedman tells us — an unacceptable mess ensues when there are no expert overseers to direct our affairs.”

    How ironic, given Friedman’s insistence that “no one is in charge” in even the best of situations in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Ostensibly, he was talking about economics, but he was making his point with regard to politics.

    Posted January 8, 2010 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

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