Debating Economic Development as a Requisite for Democracy

 Economic Development - Definition, Meaning, Types and Features | Marketing91

By Yasser Harrak

Economic development and its impact on the status of democracy is a fascinating discussion. Western democracies have long established a perfect correlation between economic development and successful democracy. Yet, Non-Western democracies like India have failed to produce such a correlation. The 2008 financial crisis and its long lasting effects on countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal has proven that democracy does not necessarily affect economic development. The existence of undemocratic regimes running highly performing economies creates a dilemma. If we must choose between bread and ballots or functional hospitals and functional parliaments, what would or should we choose? Should we prefer to live in a peaceful dictatorship or in a dangerous and troubled democracy?  Is economic development unique to democracy? Do developed economies in dictatorships make them better dictatorships?  Are democracies with underperforming economies less democratic?

Take the example of Qatar. According to the Oxford Business Group, the country has continued to rank highly in the leading global indices with years of significant budget surpluses, a stable macroeconomic environment, low government debt, political stability and a sizeable sovereign wealth fund (Oxford Business Group 2017). This economically flourishing ministate is one of the rare places in the world today where writing a poem can bring up on you a long prison sentence. For writing a poem in which he criticized the royal family, Mohamed al-‘Ajami was sentenced to 15 years in prison (Amnesty International 2015). No surprise to see that the ministate media giant Aljazeera turning a blind eye on this scandalous human right case. The irony is that Aljazeera is always busy reporting on democratic affairs in Zimbabwe, Syria or Iraq.  As shameful as the Qatari situation is, the prosperous ministate continues to falsely claim its leadership in the democratic development among Arab states.

Scholarly work continuously argued that the notion of economic development as a "requisite" to democracy has survived increasingly sophisticated statistical tests (Burkhart 1994, 903). I would like to ask a reverse question. If economic development is a requisite to democracy, wouldn't economic collapse be a requisite for authoritarianism? Although the subject is complex, observable political realities tell us that economic development is not a requisite for democracy nor is economic collapse a requisite for authoritarianism. No study has been published yet saying that Greece, Spain and Portugal have experienced a decline in democratic values or have a malfunctioning of democratic institutions due the severe economic crisis these countries continue to experience. Nevertheless, the samples leading to finding economic development as a requisite for democracy are rather small (average = 78 nations), in addition to using old measures of democracy dating back to the 1960s, and the fact that they were cross-sectional not time-series  (Ibid). 

Barbara Geddes brought up the notion of poverty as a predictor of transition to authoritarianism (Geddes 1999, 115).  She dismissed popular mobilization as an important factor giving examples of it leading to democracy in Eastern Europe but not in Latin America where it only led to concessions (Geddes 1999, 120). In the study of transition, she noted that the strength of outgoing regime may affect the transition outcome in the sense that the stronger the outgoing regime is, the less favorable for democracy the outcome will be (Ibid). This explains why the author says: "we can be reasonably certain that a positive relationship between development and democracy exists, though we do not know why "  (Geddes 1999, 118).  I cannot subscribe to this knowing that economic development did not lead democracy in the Persian Gulf states.

Arend Lijphart's measuring of democracy presents a challenge to the idea that says economic development is a requisite for development. As of 1969, the highest ranking in the quality of democracy is given to Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. (Lijphart 2011, pp 17-18) This fact refutes the claim that the more economically developed a country is the higher the quality of democracy it will have. This remains a solid argument considering that the USA, for example, was doing better than the mentioned countries and did not rank anywhere near the top. 

Matthew Loveless pointed out two important factors for democratization which are: mass media and education. Political involvement requires political sophistication literature to be communicable to the masses. (Loveless 2010, 461).  On the other hand, Samuel Huntington's assessment of Islam as a religion  is that it is not hospitable to democracy, and that religion and culture are critical in the process of democratization (Villalón 2010, 375). Huntington’s lack of deep understanding of religion and conspicuous obsession with the omnipotence of culture seem to have affected his academic views. In the case of Islam, had he said that Wahhabism is incompatible in hosting democracy, his argument could be strong. The way he refers to Islam in his assessment is similar to assessing Christianity by taking the Amish sect as sample. The excessive generalization about religion and the unreasonable amplification of the role of culture remain, in my opinion, some of Huntington's notable failures.

In conclusion, economic development per se cannot lead to democratization. There are other factors like mass mobilization, mass media, education, regimes’ strength, culture hospitability and perhaps other factors yet to be discovered that shape the transition to democracy in different ways, depending on each country's peculiarity. Debating this subject is more a structural debate than a cultural one. 



Geddes, Barbara. 1999. "What Do We Know About Democratization After Twenty Years?" Annual Review of Political Science 2: 115–44.

Burkhart, Ross E. and Michael Lewis-Beck. 1994. “Comparative Democracy: The Economic Development Thesis.” American Political Science Review 88(4): 903-910.

Lijphart, Arend. 2011. "Democratic Quality in Stable Democracies." Society 48(1): 17-18.

Loveless, Matthew. 2010. “Understanding Media Socialization in Democratizing Countries: Mobilization and Malaise in Central and Eastern Europe.” Comparative Politics 42(4): 457-474.

Villalón, Leonardo A. 2010. “From Argument to Negotiation: Constructing Democracy in African Muslim Contexts.” Comparative Politics 42(4): 375-393. 

Oxford Group. 2017. “Qatar continues to rank highly in key global indicators”. Accessed Oct 29, 2017.

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