Transitions and Challenges in Emerging Democracies

May 13, 2005
Molly Lanzarotta

Challenges facing emerging democracies were defined by a panel of Kennedy School professors this morning as part of the 2005 Kennedy School Spring Conference.
Moderator Frederick Schauer, professor of the First Amendment, further defined the topic as encompassing the “non-economic side of international development and governmental transformation.” Schauer explained that the creation of democratic institutions in an emerging democracy cannot be thought of as only serving economic goals.
“We need to think about the institutional dimensions of creating the processes of elections, the institutional dimensions of the fostering and protection of human rights, the institutional dimensions of creating civil societies,” he said. “These non-economic features can help with other development.”
Merilee Grindle, a professor of international development whose recent research has focused on Latin America, said that the honeymoon is over for citizens of Latin American countries who embraced democracy 15 to 25 years ago.
“Democracy is perceived as not having delivered what was promised,” Grindle explained. “Scholars, NGOs, democracy movements, politicians and others really have oversold what can be expected from democracy and have raised expectations about what a form of government actually can achieve. Certainly, a democratic regime can deliver, in time, on promises for personal freedom and liberty, for participation in the decisions of government, and on equality of rights. But democracy has also been sold as a way to engender economic growth, as a way to achieve economic and social equality...democracy is not a panacea for economic development.”
Fellow panelist Gowher Rizvi, director of the Kennedy School’s Ash Institute and lecturer in public policy, cited the irony in the fact that so much skepticism is being expressed about democracy when democracy is becoming “a universal aspiration.”
“This is not to say that democracy is working perfectly,” he said. “But when we say that things are not working well, we need to make the distinction between what are the problems of democracy and what are the problems of governance.”
Anthony Saich, professor of international affairs and faculty chair of Asia Programs, identified several key challenges confronting new democracies, among them the dual challenge of pursuing economic development while building institutions for democracy simultaneously.
“This is the case for many countries in Africa, and for Afghanistan and Iraq,” Saich said. “If you look at the successful transitions in east Asia, such as South Korea and Taiwan, we see that economic reform actually preceded democratization. Whereas if you look at a country like the Philippines — which has struggled much more in this process — democratization preceded economic reform. So there are some interesting questions of sequencing in this dual transition.”
Shauer closed the discussion by returning to definitions. “How do we define democracy?” he asked. “It may be that, putting aside who votes, putting aside how they vote, or whether they have written constitutions, democracy is the system in which, by definition, the losers know how to lose. In that sense, when the losers think about the next transition, rather than taking to the streets or to the tanks, it may be that adaptability is what defines democracy.”
The 2005 Spring Conference, titled “Crisis and Democracies: Can We Meet the Challenges Ahead?” continues through Saturday at the Kennedy School.
Photos: Doug Gavel

Gowher Rizvi and Merilee Grindle image

Gowher Rizvi, Merilee Grindle

Anthony Saich and Frederick Schauer image

Anthony Saich, Frederick Schauer


John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page