Is there a link between Democracy and Development in Africa?

Democracy involves the equal participation of citizens in decision-making processes (UN PHOTO/ALBERT GONZíLEZ FARRAN)

Critically examining whether there is a correlation between democratic governance and national development.


The nexus between democracy and development in Africa has been one of the most contested issues in recent years. Those in support of the linkage argue that the two – democracy and development – are intertwined and depend on or lead to the other. However, opposing views claim that the two concepts are independent of each other, and can easily be achieved without necessarily depending or leading to the other. Drawing insights from various African countries, this article critically examines whether there is a link between democracy and development in Africa. Ultimately, the article postulates that Africa should be innovative in its efforts to promote democracy and development, as there is no single prescribed way of achieving democracy or development.

Defining Democracy

The word “democracy” can be loosely translated to mean “a government of the people, by the people and for the people”.1 This literally means that democracy involves the equal participation of citizens in decision-making processes. For example, if a country wants to introduce a new law, the citizens should first be consulted before such a law is introduced. Furthermore, citizens should also actively participate in the implementation of the law.

According to the Democracy Index, Mauritius is regarded as the most democratic country in Africa (SOFITEL SO MAURITIUS)

However, it is critical to note that in any democratic society there are some people, especially the minority, who will have their views or opinions overridden by the majority. In this regard, for democracy to prevail fully, there is need for tolerance and respect for different and opposing opinions. In fact, the very admission that there are some views which are going to be suppressed means that democracy is relative and, therefore, differs from one place to another.

According to the 2016 Democracy Index2 compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Mauritius is regarded as the most democratic country in Africa. Mauritius is ranked number 18 in the world, with Norway leading the rankings. On the other hand, the weakest democratic state in Africa is Chad, and the country is ranked number 165 in the world – just two places ahead of the lowest-placed country, North Korea. Table 1 shows the top 10 and weakest 10 democracies in Africa.

The Democracy Index is based on a set of questions that seek to inquire on the electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and the political culture of a particular country. The index has been calculated since 2006 for 167 countries, covering almost the entire population of the world.

Table 1: Top 10 democracies and weakest 10 democracies in Africa

Top 10 African democracies
Ranking Country
1 Mauritius
2 Cape Verde
3 Botswana
4 South Africa
5 Ghana
6 Lesotho
7 Tunisia
8 Namibia
9 Zambia
10 Tanzania
10 weakest democracies in Africa
Ranking Country
1 Chad
2 Central African Republic
3 Equatorial Guinea
4 Democratic Republic of the Congo
5 Guinea-Bissau
6 Libya
7 Eritrea
8 Sudan
9 Burundi
10 Djibouti
Source: Adapted from the 2016 Democracy Index3

Understanding Development

One of the simplest definitions of development can be considered as the objective of moving towards a state relatively better than what previously existed.4 In this regard, development could mean any positive change in life. For example, if one used to own a bicycle and suddenly possesses a car, then that change could be referred to as development, since one will no longer be required to cycle for long hours to get to work, thereby enjoying a higher standard of living. The same can be said about one acquiring a bicycle, which one previously did not possess. Based on this definition, the term “development” can also be regarded as relative, since its meaning differs from one person to another.

Chad is, according to the Democracy Index, the weakest democratic country in Africa (ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

However, an important point to note is that development is a process and not a once-off event, since it is considered as a progression from what existed previously. As such, development should always occur and be maintained to ensure that people have a positive change in life. Positive change may include access to better health, higher income, greater individual freedom, more opportunities, better education and housing, as well as a richer quality of life.

Seychelles is the most developed country in Africa (DAVID STANLEY)

According to the 2016 Human Development Index (HDI),5 which is a standard way of measuring the well-being of the people of a country, Seychelles is the most developed country in Africa. Seychelles is ranked number 63 in the world, with Norway leading the rankings. The least developed African country on the HDI is Central African Republic (CAR), which is also ranked the least developed in the world. In fact, the 2016 HDI shows that the 19 least-developed countries in the world are all from Africa. Table 2 shows the top 10 developed and the 10 least-developed countries in Africa.

Progress in development may include access to better health care and other opportunities that ensure people have a positive change in life (REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR)

The HDI, which is compiled by the United Nations Development Programme, generally measures the life expectancy, education and per-capita income of a country. The HDI mainly emphasises that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone.6

Table 2: Top 10 developed and the 10 least-developed countries in Africa

Top 10 developed African countries
Ranking Country
1 Seychelles
2 Mauritius
3 Algeria
4 Tunisia
5 Libya
6 Botswana
7 Gabon
8 Egypt
9 South Africa
10 Cape Verde
10 least developed African countries
Ranking Country
1 Central African Republic
2 Niger
3 Chad
4 Burkina Faso
5 Burundi
6 Guinea
7 South Sudan
8 Mozambique
9 Sierra Leone
10 Eritrea
Source: Adapted from the 2016 Human Development Index7

Arguments in Support of the Democracy-Development Nexus

There are a number of assumptions that have been put forward to explain the relationship between democracy and development. One of the simplest explanations is that once people start to acquire higher levels of economic development and social maturity, they will begin to seek more accountability from their governments, thus achieving better democracy. In other ways, an educated and growing middle class is more likely to demand an active role in the running of their country, to the extent that even repressive governments will have but little option to resist such demands and become more democratic.

The appearance of democracy can then be seen as the crowning achievement of a long process of modernisation, or as a luxury that affluent countries can afford.8 This assumption is maybe more visible in a country such as South Africa, where the fall of apartheid in 1991 and the subsequent attainment of independence in 1994 led to a growing middle class and educated black community, who now demand and expect more responsibility from their government.

Closely linked to the previous point is the fact that almost all of the developed countries in the world are democratic, hence the assumption that democracy and development are intertwined. This approach helps to explain why there is an increased belief by the international community, especially among donors, that democracy is a prerequisite for development. In fact, this belief has seen the donor community come up with an unwritten rule never to release “development” funds to countries that are deemed to lack democracy.

Furthermore, the strong correlation between democracy and development is buttressed by the point that a democratic regime has never fallen after a certain income level is reached.9 This assumption is particularly true in most Western countries, where stability and economic development has been maintained or even strengthened. As such, there has been a deliberate move by most African countries to follow the same route to achieve development through the process of democratisation of political systems.

Arguments Against the Democracy-Development Nexus

Other schools of thought argue that democracy and development are not necessarily dependent on each other. One classic example to support this point is China. Despite being considered as one of the least democratic states in the world, in the last few decades this Asian nation has managed to experience impressive economic development, at a much faster rate than most democratic countries in the world.

Another key indicator which shows that the link between democracy and development is weak is the fact that there is a growing situation of authoritarian states which are showing that they can reap the benefits of economic development while evading any pressure to relax their political control.10 East Asian countries such as China, India and Singapore fall in this category, as these countries have managed to perform significantly better than democracies in the Western world.

In addition to this, the process of democratisation has not really been associated with, or led to, economic development in most countries. This assessment is particularly true in most African countries, which have taken extensive efforts to democratise their political systems but have achieved very little progress in terms of economic development. Malawi could be a classic example where efforts to democratise have not really produced the expected goals. Even since the introduction of multiparty elections in 1994, Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in Africa.11

Analysing the Democracy-Development Link in Africa

An analysis of Table 1 and Table 2, which show the top 10 democracies and 10 weakest democracies in Africa, as well as the top 10 developed and 10 least-developed countries in Africa, reveal some very interesting and intriguing conclusions on the matter at hand – the linkage of democracy and development in Africa. For example, one would naturally expect Mauritius, which is regarded as the most democratic country in Africa, to be the most developed country on the continent.

Despite being considered one of the least democratic states in the world, China has significant economic development at a much faster rate than most democratic countries in the world (GALLO IMAGES/GETTY IMAGE/ MARTIN PUDDY)

However, it is Seychelles – a country that is not even among the top 10 democracies in Africa – that leads the most developed countries on the continent. As such, the notion that democracy is linked to development, or the other way around, does not seem to hold any water. In fact, to support this point, Libya – which is listed among the 10 worst democracies in Africa – is regarded as one of the most developed countries in Africa. Furthermore, countries such as Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia, which are among the most democratic states, are not considered to be the most developed countries in Africa.

Libya has an abundance of oil reserves to promote development (REUTERS/ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI)

In this regard, the claim that democracy helps to promote development is rather weak. Various arguments could be employed to explain this disparity – one of which is the availability of natural resources to propel development in a particular country. For example, Libya may be branded as one of the weakest democracies in Africa, yet it is a leader in terms of development on the continent. This is because the country has an abundance of oil reserves to promote development. In fact, Libya has one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Another key observation to note from Table 1 and 2 is that it is the smallest countries in terms of population (such as Cape Verde, Mauritius and Seychelles) that lead the list of both the top African democracies and developed countries. Naturally, it is considered easier to govern a smaller group of people and produce a “government of the people, by the people and for the people” compared to achieving this in a larger population, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has a population of about 71 million people.12

With regard to development, research13 has also shown that economic growth is achieved faster by smaller countries than bigger ones. This may help to explain why smaller countries such as Mauritius and Seychelles are considered the most developed in Africa, as services such as health and education are feasible to provide to a smaller community, hence the attainment of better development status.

On the other hand, the linkage between democracy and development is also clearly evident in the African context. Based on tables 1 and 2, most of the African countries that are regarded as democratic are visible in the top 10 list containing the developed countries. Five countries – Mauritius, Cape Verde, Botswana, South Africa and Tunisia – are regarded as the most developed and the most advanced democracies in Africa.

On the other hand, four countries – Chad, CAR, Eritrea and Burundi – are also ranked as the least-developed countries by virtue of being the weakest democracies. Therefore, it may be correct to conclude that the relationship between democracy and development in Africa is more profound.

Almost all countries in Africa have a political system for choosing and replacing a government through free and fair elections (UN PHOTO/ERIC KANALSTEIN)

The mere fact that most African countries are enjoying some economic development since the attainment of independence is also a key indicator that some degree of democracy is critical to promote development. With the attainment of independence, a number of African countries have strived to abide by the key elements that define democracy. For example, almost all countries in Africa now have a political system for choosing and replacing a government through free and fair elections.

Furthermore, almost all African countries have come up with mechanisms to promote the active participation of citizens in politics and civic life, as well as the protection of human rights. This drive towards democracy is basically a hope that the improvement of democracy on the continent will improve the continent economically – the same way that democracy brought about development in Europe and the United States.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Arguments presented in this article clearly show a strong relationship between democracy and development. However, it may be important to note that this linkage is not completely clear in most African countries, compared to the way it is very clear in other parts of the world; for example, Europe. It is therefore critical for African countries to come up with other innovative means of achieving democracy or development, because there is no one prescribed solution to achieving either or both.

In this regard, the nexus between democracy and development should be applied with caution, as it differs from one from country to another and one continent to another. Asian countries have already shown that it is possible to achieve development without necessarily being democratic.

In a nutshell, democracy is indeed a key predictor of development. However, development can still be achieved through other means. As aptly stated by President Edgar Lungu of Zambia at the inauguration of Thomas Thabane as the new prime minister of Lesotho in June 2017: “Democracy is a very expensive game, but I will leave it up to you, the people of Lesotho, to decide how best to make democracy a bit cheaper so that you can focus resources to develop this country.”14

The Way Forward

There are a number of key policy options and measures that could be considered by African countries to ensure that democracy becomes a major ingredient for development. This is particularly important since democracy is meaningless for the majority of people unless it delivers socio-economic goods and benefits to the citizens.15

One policy option for African countries is to put in place strong institutions that are able to implement policies geared towards sustainable development. It is also critical to invest more in human capital, since a well-developed, knowledgeable and skilled human resource base is better equipped to promote a united, prosperous and integrated Africa.

Equally important is the need for African countries to maintain the rule of law, as well as protect private property rights to attract investment. Protection of the rule of law is imperative, as existing theories usually implicitly and explicitly assume that citizens actively contribute towards socio-economic development if their rights are respected and protected.

In addition to this, Africa should curb illicit financial flows (IFFs) out of the continent. According to a report by the African Union, it is estimated that the continent has lost more than US$1.8 trillion to the scourge of IFFs between 1970 and 2008 alone, and continues to lose resources valued at up to US$150 billion annually.16 The challenges of IFFs are due to a variety of factors including corruption; lack of or weak institutions, both at national and continental levels; governance challenges; political instability; and ongoing conflicts.

If we could imagine that the proceeds and natural resources lost through IFFs remained on the continent to finance Africa’s development agenda, the story would be totally different – and remarkable. In fact, Africa would be one of the most developed continents in the world, with seamless infrastructure, enough jobs for everyone and, most importantly, a peaceful and stable environment that is critical in promoting sustainable development and democracy.


  1. Lincoln, Abraham (1863) The Gettysburg Address. A Speech on the Occasion of the Dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 19 November 1863.
  2. The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (2017) ‘2016 Democracy Index, Revenge of the “deplorables”‘, Available at: <> [Accessed 17 July 2017].
  3. Ibid.
  4. Chambers, Robert (1997) Responsible Well-being: A Personal Agenda for Development. World Development.
  5. UNDP (2016) ‘Human Development Index (HDI)’, Available at: <íŸ> [Accessed 17 July 2017].
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Menocal, Alina (2007) Analysing the Relationship between Democracy and Development: Defining Basic Concepts and Assessing Key Linkages. Background note (1) prepared for the Wilton Park Conference on Democracy and Development, 23–25 October 2007.
  9. Przeworski, Adam (2000) Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-being in the World 1950-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce and Downs, George W. (2005) ‘Development and Democracy: Richer but Not Freer’, Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct 2005, Available at: <> [Accessed 30 June 2017].
  11. Lars, Sví¥sand (2011) Democratization in Malawi: Moving Forward, Stuck in Transition or Backsliding? Forum for Development Studies, University of Bergen.
  12. Southern African Development Community (2015) ‘SADC Statistical Yearbook 2015’, Available at: <> [Accessed 2 August 2017].
  13. Ryan, Bourne and Thomas, Oechsle (2012) Small is Best, Lessons from Advanced Economies. Summary. Centre for Policy Studies.
  14. Sikuka, Kizito (2017) Lesotho – Time to Address Political Instability, Southern African News Features 17 no. 24, June, Available at: <> [Accessed 1 July 2017]
  15. Adejumobi, Said (2000) Between Democracy and Development in Africa: What are the Missing Links? Paper Presented to the World Bank Conference on “Development Thinking in the Next Millennium”, Paris, 26–28 June.
  16. African Union (2015) Decisions, Declarations and Resolution of the Assembly of the Union Twenty-Fourth, Ordinary Session. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, pp. 61.
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