Throughout the history of international development there has been a debate over the relationship between democracy and poverty. However, it often feels much more ideological than based on rigorous analysis. The question that really interests people is, given the bureaucracy that democracy brings, how effective can it be in making the structural and systematic changes needed in developing countries to alleviate poverty.
Usually the discussion is just focused on key case studies like Singapore and South Korea that developed quickly with authoritarian regimes, and Brazil, Nigeria and Zimbabwe which had their growth stymied by them. Concluding that authoritarian regimes are horrible for a country on average, yet under unique conditions can really provide alluring results. Further, while growth under democratic regimes is more stable, it is also a great deal slower.
What is interesting is to also examine the paradigm from the opposite perspective. Instead of examining democracy’s ability to alleviate poverty, to investigate the effect poverty has on the ability of a democracy to function effectively. One must understand how living in poverty affects the nature of the social contract an elected politician has with their constituents. This stems from a conversation I had while working in Kibera, one of Nairobi’s large slums. I met a man running for local council and I asked him how his campaign was going. “Dismal”, he replied. He did not have as much money as his competitors, and he just was not able to reach the people he thought he needed.
“Well, what is your platform”, I probed. He looked at me strangely sensing I just did not get it. “Nobody cares what policies you are proposing”, he told me. Policies are just long term plans, and when you are poor you just cannot afford to have those. Not enough of the future is under your control to make plans for it, and more importantly, you have to worry about today. Therefore, the interest of the people is not what a candidate will do over their term in office, it is what they can do for me right now.
Campaigning is not sharing your perspective; it is giving out little bits of money, t-shirts, and food. It is providing for people now, and that is how you garner support. It is understood that you are giving away your money, or you have taken a loan and are now in debt. It is understood that giving these small presents to people now, means that if you win, you will then use your office to “reimburse yourself”. Basically, what that official does later is largely their own business, as they paid their dues upfront.
It is easier for people in the short term, because it involves less trust, and no knowledge of politics or policies. People get little presents now, cast a vote in return, and then get back to the grind of their daily lives – a grind that cannot be left to meander while they go pontificate politics. Having an opinion on policies is a luxury, not afforded by many slum dwellers. So when roads are not built, electricity grids are not extended, and sewage continues to run raw through clusters of corrugated metal where people crouch through life, nobody is surprised. This is slum democracy, and those who live it, understand exactly how it works.
Now this is not to conclude that democracy is not suited for impoverished communities, as rule by the people, for the people, is a worthy end in itself. It is just to say, that this end is not the outcome of the current “democratic” processes imported from richer countries, with more infrastructure, and time for education.
Being poor is more than a frame of mind, it is a way of life, and unless some of these pathways to democracy are adapted to consider this, they will not result in nations led by altruistic visionaries, but in public offices occupied by people who feel the country owes them something. If the world wants to see more impoverished democracies progress, the mechanics of how this system of governance is implemented must be much more incisively adapted to realize that it is after long term results, in a short term world.