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Democracy's Success Tied to Economics

Politics: A backlash against liberalization in many poor, developing nations could trigger a rise in authoritarianism, a U.N. report warns.


UNITED NATIONS — The dramatic spread of democracy around the world could be jeopardized if free elections in poor countries are not followed by economic growth, a U.N. agency warned today in a new study of political progress in developing nations.

With the end of the Cold War bringing down Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and anti-Communist dictatorships in Latin America and Africa, the number of countries that have at least some trappings of electoral democracy has more than doubled since 1985 to 140, the U.N. Development Program said in an annual report.

Yet only 82 of them could be considered genuinely democratic, with an independent press, legislature and judiciary, it said.

The U.N. agency attempted to quantify other factors that provide the girding for developed democratic societies, such as the prevalence of private civic organizations; the variety and independence of news outlets, the representation of women among elected and appointed officials, and the perceived professionalism of police and prosecutors.

"One multiparty election does not a democracy make," said Mark Malloch Brown, the U.N. program's chief executive, reviewing the study's findings for reporters.

In a detailed assessment of what the agency terms "quality of governance," the U.S. scored sixth, after Norway, Sweden, Canada, Belgium and Australia. At the bottom of the 173 countries surveyed were Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Burundi, Niger and Sierra Leone--all of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

In many younger democracies, especially in Latin America, polls conducted for the report indicated that there is increasing skepticism about the benefits of electoral democracy as living standards decline and income disparities widen. A backlash against the economic liberalization that has accompanied political liberalization in much of the developing world could trigger a resurgence of both authoritarianism and protectionism, the program's experts said.

"Democracy gets such a troubled scorecard in so many countries," Brown said, noting that many new democracies have lower per capita earnings than they did two decades ago.

Though sustained democratic rule has advantages for workers and investors, there is no immediate correlation between political freedom and economic growth, the report concluded.

"Markets and democracy were the twin panaceas that were supposed to deliver so many benefits that they have not," Brown said.

Exacerbating the disenchantment is a growing sense in developing nations that their elected governments have little power over the world bodies that set the rules for their economies, Brown said.

One factor inhibiting the development of democracy around the world is the undemocratic structure of most key global institutions, including the United Nations itself, the report suggested. The U.N. Security Council, despite decades-old efforts to expand its permanent membership into Africa, South Asia and Latin America, "is still widely perceived as an outdated legacy of the Second World War, functioning primarily as an instrument of a few major powers," the report said.

The veto-wielding nuclear powers on the council also enjoy effective control of the U.N.-associated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the report said. Together with Japan and Saudi Arabia, they have nearly half the voting power in those institutions, a reflection of economic and political clout, not population. The two financial institutions also remain bastions of male privilege, the report said, with men occupying every IMF board seat and all but 8% of the World Bank's.

Representation in the World Trade Organization is skewed against the world's poor majority as well, the report said, undermining its earning potential and faith in political institutions.

"Whether it is the trade barriers and subsidies that keep the poor country farmers out of rich country markets, or the slow response to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, the leading global powers and institutions stand accused of being unfair and out of touch," the report said.

Still, the number of overtly authoritarian regimes has dropped dramatically, from 67 in 1985 to 26 in 2000 by the program's assessment, and even the most pessimistic U.N. analysts do not forecast a widespread return to totalitarian or military rule.

Most of the world's Muslims now live in democracies, with India, Indonesia and Bangladesh at the top of that list, the report noted. But Arab states lag far behind the rest of the world in almost every indicator of democratic development, from press freedom to the political participation of women. Only four of the 17 Arab states qualify as even nominal democracies.

In East Asia, however, where many political leaders had argued that local cultural values were unfavorable to the development of Western-style democracy, elections are becoming more widespread, more open and more competitive, the U.N. Development Program said.

At the request of governments, the agency is training local election monitors in Bangladesh, providing legal assistance to East Timor's fledgling legislature, financing a public information center for the Indonesian parliament, and helping Laos adapt its laws to international human rights standards. Democratic roots are deepening in countries as diverse as South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines.

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