iDev:Strong Institutions in Developing Countries

Cheers to Open Democracy for its wonderful presentation of the debate started by Francis Fukuyama's new introduction to his classis 'The End of History.' Fukuyama presciently recognizes that "we know relatively little of how to build strong political institutions in poor countries." In order to learn more about this central challenge, I think we need to answer the following question: If a developing country can manage to get competent leadership, must they look towards the West for examples of how to lead a regime?

This is not a question of transcending the nation state, but of to whom emerging nation state look towards for inspiration. Two important works address this question. The first pertains specifically to Africa, It is The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, the work of the excellent African historian Basil Davidson. Davidson's main argument is that the freedom fighters and the first generation of post-colonial African political elite made a key mistake when looking only towards western European institution. As exceptions to this rule, he looks at Yoweri Museveni's early regime in Uganda and Amilcar Cabral in Cape Verde. While I disagree with Davidson (and agree with Fukuyama) that the nation state model is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, Davidson's approach is correct in that developing nations must investigate contemporary and historical models of democracy closer to home.

The other work is one that Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen first presented in a series of lectures (presided over by Fukuyama) at SAIS in Washington DC, and later published in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Sen shows that Athens and Christian Europe are not the only ones that have contributed to the experiment of democracy. To show this, Sen explores figures like Akbar, a 16th century Mughal champion of tolerant religion and open dialogue and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. This exercise in intellectual history is important because, if Sen is correct, developing countries becoming more free and democratic are not becoming more 'western', but are drawing on 'a history of democracy in the form of public participation and reasoning (that) is spread across the world."

While it is beyond the scope of this piece to investigate the examples put forth by Sen and Davidson, both of these authors would likely agree, as I do, with Fukuyama's notion of the 'End of History.' What this means is that the world will become more democratic (with a balance of liberty and equality), but it will be up to real life leaders to encourage or retard this progress. Earnest political leaders around the developing world should learn from historical examples of democracy and tolerance, especially from their own regions of the world, apply them to their own shared historical experience and cultural values, and create strong institutions by creating their own balance of liberty and equality.

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