Many democracies fare poorly in terns of providing what their electorates want and need
An op-ed that appeared recently on Asia Times titled “The eight billionth question” was as interesting for what it didn’t say (at least out loud) as for what it said.
The article was produced by Syndication Bureau, a news and analysis portal based in Abu Dhabi. That organization makes no secret of or apology for its agenda to support the regimes that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council; more on that in a moment.
The op-ed in question, as the headline suggests, was a commentary on the recent announcement that planet Earth now is home to 8 billion people.
The article rightly noted that while overall the world has made much progress in terms of social development, this fact “offers little solace to the 800 million people who still lack access to electricity, or the roughly same number who go to sleep hungry.”
It went on to cite the finding of the latest UN World Population Prospects report that “the fastest-growing populations are concentrated in low-income and developing countries.”
It continued: “Thus a key question facing these countries, and the world, is this: What’s the best way to ensure that fast-growing, large populations become a dividend to be multiplied rather than problems that could metastasize?”
A very good question. Indeed, nothing said so far is controversial. But then the article names the eight countries that the United Nation estimates “will account for about half of the world’s population growth over the next three decades,” and remarks that “none of these fast-growing eight have a history of good governance or sound economic management….”
Included among those Big Eight are the world’s largest democracy, India, and one of its liveliest, the famed practitioner of People Power, the Philippines.
In contrast, we are told, “On income-per-capita scores and human-development rankings, Gulf Cooperation Council countries tend to rise above the rest of the MENA region.
“Surely, oil and gas wealth has played a role in those rankings, but sound governance, particularly in the most advanced countries like the United Arab Emirates (ranked 26 in the world on the UN’s Human Development Index, ahead of Spain and France) is also an important factor.”
Unsaid is the fact that these six epitomes of “sound governance” are the Kingdom of Bahrain, the State of Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman, the State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, absolute monarchies all.
Are such observations inaccurate? Not at all. Disingenuous? Certainly not. It’s worth noting that the author of the op-ed is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
As suggested above, Syndication Bureau’s pro-GCC brief can result in a harsh bias against Iran and other Shia-affiliated entities such as those in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
But though SB may sometimes propagate tropes such as Iran’s allegedly widespread sponsorship of terrorism and “disruption” of Middle East politics, while playing down some Arab Gulf states’ support of Salafist extremism and the lethal activities of al-Qaeda, ISIS and their offshoots, it provides valuable insights into the policies and achievements of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) states.
And in doing so, it sometimes voices valid criticism of the policies of Western governments, such as this critique of the hypocrisy infesting much analysis of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup.
The point is, it would be foolish to shrug off the salient points in the article about good governance merely because of the portal’s tendency to cozy up with the Gulf dictatorships.
Good, bad and ugly
The primary selling point of democracy is that people, the demos, should have the right to determine the kratia, their rulers. But what if their elected rulers fail to perform as advertised?
What if, say China, the world’s largest dictatorship, consistently and significantly outperforms, say India, the world’s largest democracy in areas that actually matter to the demos, such as poverty reduction, access to affordable, quality education, and top-drawer health care? What is more important, measurable results or the means of achieving them (or so we hope when we cast our ballots)?
Another issue often overlooked, if not scrupulously ignored, by democracy fundamentalists is the fact that the desire of “the people” to be their own masters is overblown. It’s not by accident that strong men and women like Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban, Thaksin Shinawatra, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Megawati Sukarnoputri rise to power and maintain it, while gentler souls like Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders get nowhere.
As the Marxist academic Richard D Wolff argues eloquently, most if not all nominally democratic countries don’t go all the way. True democracy entails true control of the means by which we feed, clothe and shelter ourselves and our families, namely the workplace. Yet the successful cooperatives Dr Wolff advocates are extremely rare.
Let’s face it, it’s much easier to draw a reliable paycheck from an efficient employer, and then bitch about its “corruption” on Facebook on our off hours, than put up with the stress and financial risk of running an enterprise ourselves.
The Syndication Bureau piece referenced here concludes: “There are no secrets in developing a country’s success. We know what must be done. The countries that have been doing it thus far – and continue to do it – will be winners in the 21st century. Most important, their people will be in positions to achieve the most important human development goal of all: reaching their full potential.”
And the deeper question is, will those “winners” be democracies? In the long run, how to answer that question is the only task that really matters to the demos.
David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.
This article was originally published on Asia Times. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.