The Arab Democracy Paradox

Mwangi S. Kimenyi of Brookings has this interesting take on the crisis in Arab world.

He says the uprising was not because of poor economics/development failure. Infact these regions have shown decent performance in human development.

But if we take a deeper look, we find even more holes in these explanations. Many of the Arab countries that are now experiencing rebellions should not be considered development failures; in many ways, they are actually development successes. In last year’s UN Human Development Report’s assessment of progress, Arab countries do remarkably well. Five Middle Eastern countries are in the top 10 in terms of improvements in the Human Development Index. They include Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, and Egypt is not far behind [1]. The advances in this region are mainly due to significant improvements in health and education. Even Libya and Iran do well in this long-term assessment despite very low or even negative growth because they saw very rapid advances in life expectancy and school enrollments.

The author says this implied that authoritarian regime was inconsistent with this overall social development:

Therefore, the democratization movement that is beginning to take shape in the Arab world is a result of development progress and not because it has failed at development. This imbalance between socioeconomic development and democratization is what the 2010 Human Development Report has referred to as the “democratic deficit” in the Arab world.

The author points to an interesting twist of how events have usually occurred. It is generally assumed that economic growth/development leads to movement towards democracy (called Lipset’s hypothesis). But in case of Arab regions, it was not economic growth but improvement in social development which led to this movement towards democracy:

This argument retakes the hypothesis put forward by American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset more than 50 years ago that the demand for democracy is a result of broader processes of modernization and development. In the long run, it is very difficult for societies that have attained high living standards to tolerate living under autocratic regimes.

But in considering Lipset’s hypothesis, it is important to think carefully about what is meant by development. Much of the scholarship on development has uncritically adopted the view that development is the same as growth in per capita income. From this perspective, the “development causes democracy explanation” would not make sense for the Arab world because the Middle East is not a high growth region in terms of per capita income.

However, the Arab world has experienced very rapid improvements in health and education indicators, which is why a broader measure of development (like the Human Development Index) classifies them as success stories. Life expectancy in North Africa, for example, grew from 51 to 71 years between 1970 and 2010. In countries with similar starting points, life expectancy only grew by 8 years. The share of children in school expanded from 37 to 70 percent (33 percentage points) while in countries with similar starting points it grew by 23 percentage points.

Much of the Arab world has reached a level of development that is inconsistent with its political system. As citizens in Middle Eastern countries became richer, healthier and more educated, they became much less willing to tolerate being ruled by predatory elites. This interpretation broadly confirms what we are witnessing in the streets of the Middle East. These protests are an the expression of a pro-democracy movement that is often being led by university-educated youth who form part of an emerging middle class that is no longer willing to live under semi-feudal autocrats. While the political systems that emerge from these regime transitions will take time to consolidate, there is little chance that these countries will veer back toward authoritarian rule.

This is just the opposite of what others have been saying. For instance. Arvind Subramanian and others say as these economies rely on natural resources and rents, return to democracy will not really happen. They hardly have economic institutions which can push them towards democracy.

Kimenyi has a different stance. He says as these revolutions are by educated university students who would not tolerate living under semi-feudal regimes. Moreover, because of this social upliftment he believes other African regions will not see similar uprising:

For these reasons, the Jasmine revolutions are unlikely to extend to authoritarian regimes in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the pace of improvements in health and education has been much slower. Furthermore, ethnic fractionalization in SSA makes it much more difficult to organize unified mass protests against autocratic regimes.

He adds if we do away with these achievements of Arab model and make changes, it will be a major loss:

Getting the explanation for the Arab transition to democracy right is extremely important to ensuring the future stability if the region. If one thinks that Arab political systems are in crisis because their development models failed, then one is likely to advocate for wholesale change in these models. While there are of course many legitimate reasons to consider significant changes to the way in which development and economic policies are framed in these countries, we should bear in mind that by and large their policies were successful in improving the health and education of their population and in some cases in generating sustained economic growth. Taking away these achievements would be the greatest threat to the prospects for Arab democracy.

Really interesting and different interpretation of the events in Arab World.

India too started with this model of social development first and then growth later. But it backfired. We are now following growth now with social development following. How Arab World managed to improve social indicators needs to be studied better. These are smaller economies than India and may be that is the reason.

As they say it, each region’s growth/development model is different….

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One Response to “The Arab Democracy Paradox”

  1. How schooling investments facilitated the Middle East uprisings « Mostly Economics Says:

    […] had pointed to this interesting articlefrom Mwangi Kimenyi of Brookings. He said the uprising was not because of poor […]

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