Political Domain

The Concept of Democracy, the Developmental State and the Principle of Subsidiarity

Three elements of East Africa’s political domain need to be considered. The first is the very concept of democracy and what it means for the inclusion and empowerment of the region’s poorest citizens. The second touches on degree to which government influences the activities of economic
agents towards a set of specific objectives. The third concerns the division of authority, decision-making and executive power between central and local government. Taken together, these three dimensions embody the nature of the power relationship between citizens and the state.
For many, the right to choose one’s representatives and leaders through the ballot box is at the heart of their encounter with democracy. However, in addition to this largely political view of democracy must be added social inclusion and economic empowerment. These components of a broader conceptualization of democracy confer a sense of belonging to a wider community.
Without inclusion and empowerment, ballot-box democracy is essentially useless as an instrument of change. Unexpectedly low voter turnout in recent East African elections – Tanzania in 2010 for example – could be a sign of growing disinterest among citizens to take part in what they might
consider to be an impotent ritual.
A new social contract based on transparency and accountability is essential to restoring transformative power to the ballot box. Transparency opens government to citizen’s scrutiny, thus enhancing their inclusion in the decision-making process. Accountability ensures that elected officials and civil servants are held responsible for their decisions and actions. The policy challenge is one of achieving and maintaining transparency and accountability by strengthening, among others, the independence of the media and judiciary.
Governments can have a deep impact on growth, progress and the degree of inclusiveness and equity that is achieved in society. They do so by choosing the extent to which they influence or direct the actions and behaviour of economic agents. One option is to govern the economy using regulations that enforce minimum standards to protect the public from market failure such and abuses of market power by powerful actors, and to provide collective goods such as security and public education.
A second option available to governments is direct intervention in the economy in order to transform it by promoting new industries and managing the reallocation of human, financial and physical resources towards these emerging sectors and activities. This direct intervention is characteristic of
a developmental state, which is defined as one that is focused on economic development and takes necessary policy measures, including industrial policies, to accomplish that objective.
Which of these two approaches to economic governance – regulation or intervention – is best able lead to more inclusiveness and greater equity is a question worthy of robust debate. Should East African governments resort to a regulatory approach that nudges their economies to a desired set
of growth, integration, inclusion and equity objectives? Or should they take the proactive approach described earlier of investing directly in specific national and regional value chains, individual and firm-level capabilities, creating support mechanisms for start-ups and high growth enterprises, and
active market development and trade facilitation?
Regardless of which position is held, the capability of the state and the availability of resources are critical success factors. This raises the important issue of whether government action is most inclusive, equitable and effective when it is conceived, decided upon and executed centrally or locally. The principle of subsidiarity is the idea that ‘a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed more effectively at a more immediate or local level. In theory, subsidiarity should be better able to respond to local aspirations and realities, as individual and community initiative is given maximum room to solve local problems, leading to superior performance in terms of economic and social outcomes. Decentralisation is an important feature of government in Kenya following the promulgation of the new Constitution, in Tanzania though the Development-by-Devolution initiative, and in Uganda through the local council system. However, the jury is out on whether such efforts at ‘taking government closer to the people’ materially improve citizen engagement and socioeconomic outcomes at the local level. A complicating factor is that it is not always clear whether the decentralisation of responsibility and accountability for the delivery of public goods has been matched by the decentralisation of decision-making and resource allocation authority. Has the fact that Tanzania’s schoolteachers are paid by local governments improved their attendance record or quality of teaching? Will Kenya’s medical services staff perform better if they are accountable to county governments instead of the central ministries?