The necessity of democracy in achieving Sustainability Development

To discuss the necessity of democracy in achieving the proposed Sustainability Development Goal (SDG) number 1, the question, ‘what is poverty?’, must be answered. Poverty is explained using 2 models, absolute poverty and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is measured by a fixed threshold that is universal across all countries (2 USD threshold is currently used), while relative poverty takes into account the differences between countries and the changes over time (Foster, 1998). In general, those that have an income less than their country’s poverty threshold or below 2 USD per day would be defined as in poverty. According to The World Bank’s most recent estimates, there are 2.2 billion people living on less than 2 USD per day (The World Bank, 2011). In regards to SDG goal number 1, the aim is to end poverty in all forms by 2030 and studies have shown that democracy does in fact improve the welfare of the impoverished (Moon and Dixon, 1985; Lake and Baum, 2001). However, when you look in detail at many of these studies they lack global health trends and are biased by selection (Ross, 2006). This essay will look to explain and discuss whether democracy is necessary to end world poverty, looking at two major theories and discussing how they have and have not been applied in real life.
One key theory that infers that democracy will increase living standards and reduce poverty is provided by Sen (1999:180) in his work, Development as Freedom. He argues that democracies are more politically liable than their authoritarian counterparts when attempting to reduce poverty and more specifically famine. Through the electoral process the public are able to vote out those that are unable to deal with poverty issues within their state and they are therefore more inclined to fix these issues and end poverty, if they wish to remain in power. A recent example of this would be the response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans. After the many failures that took place in the follow up to the disaster, Bush’s leadership was criticized heavily (Farazmand, 2007) and people knew that reforms needed to be made. Although not the only reason there was a change in leadership in 2008, the issues after Hurricane Katrina played a large role in the public’s vote (WNBC/Marist Poll, 2006). Here, through democracy, the Bush administration was held accountable for their response to a disaster and subsequently the Republican Party was replaced in the next general election in 2008.
A second theory that Sen (1999) provides, concerns information and the practice of free press within democracies. News media outlets act as a fundamental early warning sign for oncoming disasters. These media outlets are able to point out the shortages within a political structure that could have allowed these crises to occur and can force governments to be held accountable. This mode of free press may be censored out in a dictatorship to prevent any embarrassment to the state. If a state or society is suffering from food shortages, this would be reported by the press and the government would be put under pressure to act and deal with the problem. An example of this applied in real life is that of Kalahandi, which during the 1980s and 1990s struggled with severe droughts. Through the freedom of press and opposition parties within the democracy, early warning signs were key in the prevention of famine in Kalahandi, by holding the government accountable (Banik, 1998; 2011).
As discussed above, ruling parties can be held accountable for not reducing poverty through the democratic process of public voting. However, it does not necessarily mean that governments will be held accountable for their insufficiencies. Many poor countries suffer with high amounts of illiteracy and social stigma which can drastically affect the voting process. For example, in India, democratic voting is characterized by exclusion and elitism. Varying issues, including education, economic insecurity and social discrimination, lead to groups of the society being excluded from participation in the voting and therefore their priorities are not met which prolongs their deprivation (Drèze, 2004).
Sen’s (1999) second argument, that the role of free press within a democracy can increase the accountability of the government, can be applied to many crises and corruptions (Banik, 2011; Brunetti and Weder, 2003), however, there are also examples of states that lack a free press, due to authoritarian power, that have dealt with disasters using different mechanisms. In Cuba, for example, the use of social organisations and community cooperation are fundamental in their disaster response (Thomson and Izaskun, 2004). This demonstrates that it is the political investment rather than the type of political structure that affects the managing of disasters. Also, a democratic state doesn’t necessarily mean free media. According to Freedom House’s 2015 report on freedom of the press, there are still many democratic countries that lack clear freedom of the press (Freedom House, 2015).
Although many studies show a clear link between democracy and poverty reduction, Ross (2006) argues that many of these studies suffer selection bias and tend to lack non-democratic states with positive economic and social status. This can fuel the fire for democracy as the studies aren’t necessarily balanced in method. Ross (2006) also points out that many studies do not take into account global health trends and when these issues are controlled for, there is little effect on infant mortality in democratic states.
The debate whether democracy is necessary to end world poverty is a complex one and will continue to be because of the many factors that need to be taken into account. This article has tried to point out that there are both positive and negative effects to using democracy as a vehicle for ending world poverty. Political responses to disaster are intertwined with pre-disaster social constructs which are applicable in both democratic and non-democratic societies. However, it is clear that if a state could be held accountable for insufficient response to disasters, they would be more inclined to work, firstly to prevent disasters and, secondly, to provide the correct support after disaster has struck. The freedom of the press is fundamental in holding those actors liable and but the democratic voting system in some states also needs to be adjusted. Voting accessibility needs to be studied and reformed in those states where certain populations are excluded from the democratic system, for instance those in India. The continued poverty in India appears to be a thorn in the side of democracy. Although there have been positive advancements, they have been the world’s largest democratic state since 1947 and they continue to have an extremely high level poverty.
In conclusion, Sen’s theories of holding governments accountable for their failures in ending poverty still ring true and are a key aspect in understanding how the SDG goal number 1 can be achieved through democracy. Democracy is a great starting place to foster development and to end poverty but that is not the be all and end all. Other actions need to take place, most specifically that the entire population can use their right to vote. In essence, a democracy is the sharing of political rights throughout the whole population and progressively gives a voice to the poor. Without this voice, an end to poverty would be a bigger challenge.

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