Why democracy at the expense of economic growth is off base

Tuesday September 12 2017

There is also a concern that the prolonged electioneering period will have serious economic ramifications.

Meru town residents demonstrate on September 6, 2017 in opposition to Mr Peter Munya's backing of Nasa in the repeat election. There is also a concern that the prolonged electioneering period will have serious economic ramifications. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

More by this Author

On August 2010, Kenyans hailed the promulgation of a new Constitution with the hope that it would heal most of the nation’s problems.

Given our history of human rights abuses, we wanted a dispensation that would protect individual human rights and, therefore, the wide Bill of Rights as espoused in the Constitution.

However, it seems that, in focusing on civil and political rights at the expense of economic development, we may have swung the pendulum too far.

There aren’t many countries that have undergone an economic transformation or industrialisation within a framework of liberal human or democratic rights.

In fact, most of those that industrialised early — such as Britain and the United States — did under harsh labour conditions with workers toiling for long hours under poor environmental conditions for low wages.

The ones that industrialises more recently — such as Japan, the Asian Tigers or even China — have done so under similar conditions and within autocratic regimes.

In Kenya, it seems that our pursuit of human rights and democratic ideals is slowly impeding our ability to industrialise.

In the past five years, we have witnessed strikes in several sectors in the pursuit of labour rights, with many seeing their demands met.

What we fail to understand, however, is that as a country’s labour rights and wages increase, it chases away investors, who must seek the cheapest means of production in order to recoup their investments.

This is why many manufacturing jobs in the US, for example, relocated to Asia and Latin America, where labour is cheaper and there are fewer environmental laws.

Since the 1980s, Kenya’s manufacturing sector has declined due to implementation of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (Saps).

By the mid 1990s, most of the industries created after independence had collapsed.

This decline has continued despite Kenya’s implementing a development plan in 2007 that envisions the country being industrialised and becoming a middle-income economy by 2030.

But then, no country has ever attained a middle-income status without an aggressive industrialisation focus.

Our liberal democratic laws, which place individual human and political rights above economic interests, are hindering economic development.

For example, the courts have granted injunctions over land in favour of individuals that, at times, has delayed the standard gauge railway (SGR), a project that would benefit the public.

Inasmuch as it is important to guard property rights, there is a need to consider the balance of convenience when granting injunctions for projects in the public interest.

There is also a concern that the political standoff and prolonged electioneering period will have serious economic ramifications.

The Supreme Court ruling that annulled the presidential election results was also guided by this focus on civil and political rights.

Civil and political liberties are important aspects of human development but it is important to consider how these decisions affect economic growth.

Paul Collier, in his book Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, makes a provocative argument about why it is dangerous to have democracy in some places.

Until a country has reached a certain level of economic empowerment, he says, democracy could propel internal conflicts that undermine economic development.

It may, therefore, be in our economic interest to seriously ponder whether we, as a nation, can afford this expensive pursuit of wider democratic space and a constitutional structure that focuses on civil and political rights.

Though important, that would be at the expense of real economic transformation that would benefit a majority of citizens.

Note that, in the prevailing circumstances, we risk an ‘Arab Spring’ revolution from the masses of unemployed youth.

Ms Gachire is a senior lecturer at Kenya School of Government, Nairobi. [email protected]