Political Pluralism, Democracy and Development:Nexus and Policy Implications

By IAfrica
In Gambia
Apr 9th, 2014

The causal links and/or relationships between the trio of political pluralism, democracy and development have been and continue to be controversial in many respects especially if and when a comparative analysis and interpretation of data/evidence between democracies and autocracies is undertaken. 

This is because on the one hand, there is the stance that autocracies, as compared to democracies, are better able to marshal the requisite resources to enhance, promote and sustain economic development, and on the other, that a certain level of economic development is a sine qua non for democracy to hold, flourish and be sustained – and that attainment of such a level is by no means an easy feat!. It is within such a context that this piece finds itself and not necessarily to posit a stance but give my take! In so doing, it may well be helpful and worth my while to attempt to briefly define political pluralism, democracy and development which should in principle shed some light on the broader parameters of and for the piece against which it can be measured.

That advanced, and in very brief and simplistic terms, pluralism is both a political theory and philosophical premise. As relates to the former, classical pluralism espouses that politics and decision making are mostly housed in the framework of government but that many non-governmental groups expend their resources to exert influence such that they benefit from the distribution of power and influence with the ultimate to maximising their interest and utility! Within such a configuration, potential lines of conflict are, invariably, drawn, multiple and keep shifting as power is a dynamic and continuous bargaining process between competing groups and interests. 

Within such an environment, there clearly would obtain inequalities but they tend to be distributed and evened out by the effects of the various forms of available resources in the polity. It is duly recognised and immediately advanced that the existence of competitors is the fundamental basis for a democratic equilibrium which constitutes an important plank for individuals and groups to obtain their goals. Pluralists place a lot of emphasis on civil rights such as freedom of expression and organisation and a multi-party electoral system with at least two parties, to point to only these two. 

Importantly, pluralists also emphasise the differences between potential and actual power where the latter connotes the ability to compel an individual to do something and is the view of power as causation – essentially meaning that A’s (my) capacity for acting in such a manner as to control B’s (your) response is not necessarily a realistic relationship. Potential power refers to the possibility of converting resources into actual power, especially money which is one of such resources.       

Importantly, there are three major tenets of the pluralist school which are (1) resources and hence potential power are widely scattered throughout the polity (2) at least some resources are available to nearly everyone and (3) that at any point in time the quantum of potential power outstretches or exceeds the amount of actual power. There are two other variants of power i.e. Elite power and Neo-pluralism which will be the subjects of discussion sooner rather than later as they go over and beyond the intent and scope of this piece. As a political philosophy, pluralism upholds the belief that many of our deepest moral values i.e. liberty, equality, the minimization of pain or cruelty, dignity, etc. are incommensurate and balancing them as best as possible should therefore govern our political philosophy.  

Democracy or rule by the people is simply that system of geo-politico-administrative management of power relationships and the effective management of societal affairs through accepted and acceptable political, economic and administrative mechanisms, processes, procedures and systems purposively designed to enhance meeting the needs of the constituents where both the governors and governed have equal rights and corresponding responsibilities. Development, which is understood by most of us, at the floor level of definition, means the qualitative and quantitative increment in the quality of life of a community from one point to another as may be either planned or unplanned. 

If and when we carefully examine and analyse data between democracies and autocracies, at least in terms of the important variable of economic development, we soon realise that, as a whole, democracies fare much better than the latter as well as mixed-polities. The main reasons behind this are attributable to the differing levels of successes registered by democracies in general especially those that, in concrete terms, continue to develop their institutions of accountability i.e. an effective legislature, Office of the Ombudsman or Public Protector, checks on the executives, an  efficient and effective public sector, independence of the judiciary underpinned by speedy administration and dispensation of justice, a free but responsible press, mainstreaming of public-private partnership (PPP), to name only a few. 

These constitute the foundations upon which democratic systems of governance are built and maintained which, collectively too, provide for the “democratic dividend” which goes a long if not all the way in anchoring the imperative need for unrelenting support for participatory democratic governance and sustainable development across the political spectrum.

In terms of the policy implications of the relationship between political pluralism, democracy and development, the first and most important consideration or provision is that democratic polities MUST anchor their policy philosophies and intents on the raison d’être of the overarching provisions of National Constitutions (which express the supreme will of the constituents) and other relevant corpus of laws and regulations especially in terms of national development policy enunciation, profiling or re-profiling (as the case may be) and their connectivity or dove-tailing such that a predecessor development policy and its programmatic offshoots robustly provide for the enabling environment for maximal impact of successor policies and attendant development programmes. 

The imperative for such is that the respective as well as collective mandates (the basis of and for collective responsibility) or locus standi of those institutions that constitute the bed rocks of democratic good governance and sustainable development discussed above, must, of necessity be seen to be steering and implementing policies and development programmes that find their essence and positive impact on the prioritised development agenda of the citizenry on the one hand, and on the other, to ensure that democratic principles and values underpin the national development trajectory and network of responsive development policies.

The other important policy consideration and/or implication especially for fledgling democracies is that the processes of institution building and coalition formations must be firmly based on principles of democracy such that the effects of the democratic dividend is greater than the sum of its parts. In such a process, flexibility would be important especially in terms of programmatics. 

This must be so but not compromise as compromise over any principle equals abandonment of the principle which is NOT our intention here! The other very important principle that facilitates democratic processes and sustainable development across the polity is that of “decentralisation by devolution” which not only takes both democracy and development to the local authorities but all the way to the door step of constituents which leverages and thus unleashes latent energies thus spurring advances towards sustainable achievements of the policy imperatives of national development blue prints. 

In conclusion, the issue is not the egg or chicken situation but a necessary and deliberate policy sequencing and leveraging relationship between the trio if sustainable national development is to be achieved. 

Author: Saihou T.M.F. Sanyang; Bakau Kachikally

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