A Burmese man checks his mobile phone.(Photo: Flickr)
Since 2011, Burma has slowly been transitioning into a fledgling democracy from a reclusive military dictatorship. Some positive steps have taken place – multi-party elections have been held and more than 3,000 political prisoners have been freed. Yet as the U.S. deputy national security adviser stated recently, “[p]arts of the reform effort have stalled, parts have moved forward and parts, we’ve seen, have even moved backward, so it’s a mixed picture.”
The biggest test for Burma’s democratic transition is the upcoming general elections taking place in November. For citizens to make informed decisions and to hold future leaders accountable, they must be empowered with knowledge. The potential political leaders also must be educated about how to govern, as well as find ways to communicate and engage with their constituents. And technology, more specifically mobile phones, will have a large role to play for both groups.
Each year on September 15, the UN observes the International Day of Democracy to celebrate efforts to promote and consolidate democracy around the world. Despite these efforts however, the realization of consolidated democracy continues to be a struggle for many reformers. This year, the UN has chosen a theme of “Engaging Young People in Democracy” and acknowledges that “study after study show declining faith among young people…with declining levels of participation.” Compounding this declining faith in democracy is a rising ideological competitor in the form of economically successful authoritarian regimes.
As much as young people are recognized as dreamers and agents of change, these characterizations tend to be the result of youth wanting to see an improvement in their quality of life. In emerging countries such improvements are often delivered through economic growth, and in cases such as China and Singapore youth populations can honestly say their standard of living has gotten better year after year. These examples can lead youth to become disillusioned with democracy, especially at a time when the world’s major democracies are suffering the aftereffects of a major financial crisis. Meanwhile, in the developing world, kickstarting growth in democratic regimes often takes time due to a need to build consensus and develop proper policies.
Quality of life, however, is not measurable only in terms of indicators such as income levels, consumption, and GDP — though almost all of the world’s most prosperous countries are democracies. Other, arguably more important aspects such as human rights, liberty, and freedom are also vital components. Since 2012, CIPE has been part of a consortium seeking to analyze the development paths of three emerging democracies (India, Brazil, and South Africa) in order to create an argument in support of democratic development.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to own property [and] no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” In Burma, a country in the early stages of its emergence from a half century of military rule and central economic planning, property rights violations could threaten democracy itself.
Burma lacks many institutions necessary for a market-oriented democracy, such as a reliable court system, dependable electricity, and accessible financial services. The country’s physical infrastructure is also woefully inadequate. Paramount among these issues is rampant corruption and terrible public governance – issues that manifest in the “land-grabbing epidemic” which is sparking protest and civic unrest.
Read the rest of this article at the Thomson Reuters blog.
Despite its lingering problems, South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy provides many valuable lessons.
This week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit focuses on the topic of “Investing in the Next Generation.” The summit aims to explore issues of economic inclusiveness, democratic development and “creating an enabling environment for the next generation.”
This discussion is especially pertinent in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, when many in developing countries have begun to lose faith in the wisdom of democratic governance and market-based economic reforms. The rise of Chinese and Russian authoritarianism coupled with robust economic growth in those countries provides a seemingly plausible alternative for lifting millions out of poverty while still allowing autocrats to retain a tight grasp on power.
The Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), a South African think tank and CIPE partner, examined the post-apartheid experience of South Africa’s transition to market economy and a vibrant democracy in a recently released report entitled “South Africa and the Pursuit of Inclusive Growth.”
As part of a larger initiative known as the “Democracy Consensus”, CDE’s research shows that democracy is a viable path not only for fostering inclusive economic growth in the short- to medium-term, but also laying the foundations for sound institutions that lead to long-term stability and prosperity.
In September, Pakistan passed an important democratic milestone: its first peaceful handover of power from one elected government to another, breaking the long cycle of coups and military dictatorship the country has suffered through since its independence.
This moment was a long time in the making, the culmination of many efforts by many different segments of society. Could the slow-and-steady transition be a model for other countries to follow?
Yesterday, heavyweights in the world of democracy studies got together at the National Endowment for Democracy — which, like CIPE, turns 30 this year — to discuss what we know about supporting democratic transitions and what we still have to learn.
The idea of “democratic transitions” is a relatively recent one. As formerly authoritarian countries like Portugal, Spain, Greece, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and many in Latin America shifted to democratic forms of government in the 1980s — followed by many formerly Communist nations after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union — a new vocabulary was needed to explain what was happening and why.
Political scientist Samuel Huntington divided these transitions into “waves”: the first occurring in the 19th century, the second after World War II, and the third beginning with Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” in 1974 and arguably continuing through today — with most countries in the world now under some form of democracy.
Romanians protest against President Basescu in January 2012. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)
Though some recent machinations remind us that democracy can be a fragile thing, one can observe with guarded optimism that the overall transformation of the Central and Eastern European region to market-oriented democracies has been relatively successful. To understand where we are today, it’s important to look back to see how far Eastern Europe has come in 25 years.
Many take the Eastern European transitions for granted, noting the existence of market institutions and young democracies before World War II and subsequent Soviet domination, and characterizing the transition as a mere return to business as usual in the region. This interpretation is flawed, as it fails to realize that what we historically took to be “market institutions” and “democratic practice” in the region prior to post-war communism were deeply flawed and often only skin-deep.