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Lessons from Latin America: Donors, democracy and development

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal

On the 4th and 5th of June, ODI, DFID, and IDEA organised a conference on Politics and Poverty: New Frontiers for Donor Agencies as part of ODI’s series on Lessons from Latin America. One of the key messages to emerge from the two days is that Latin America is a laboratory of democratic governance and experimentation. As such, it is an important learning ground for other regions in the developing world.

The uneven experience that Latin America has had with democratisation since the emergence of the so-called ‘Third Wave’ shows that there is no ‘end of history’, as Francis Fukuyama declared in the 1990s with the global triumph of democracy and capitalism. As highlighted by David Booth, patterns of change may be more cyclical than linear. What we have in Latin America today are ‘hybrid’ democracies characterised by strong caudillo rule and/or populist tendencies, a crisis of democratic representation and disillusionment about their poor developmental performance. These weaknesses in formal democratic institutions are also prevalent in other regions of the developing world, for example in Africa, which is why it is so important to learn from the Latin American experience.

On the other hand, despite the perceived limitations of these weak democracies, there is very strong international and domestic support for democratic politics. Even if support is sometimes more rhetorical than real, democracy is here to stay. As Mark Robinson from DFID pointed out, the question is no longer whether democracy is better or less well suited to promote development, since evidence can be found both for and against. Rather, the challenge is how to work with these weak democracies to harness their representative nature and their developmental potential – or, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, how to work with the institutions you have, and not the institutions you wish you had.

For donors, this means having to develop a deeper understanding of the political economy and context of the settings in which they are involved. But as several conference speakers highlighted (including Kristen Sample from IDEA and Adam Behrendt from the Andes DFID office), this has not proven easy, especially in terms of identifying ways of working differently based on this more profound and contextualised understanding.

A few of the issues raised during the conference regarding the importance of context are worth highlighting:

  • There is a need to identify new actors to engage with and to nurture what Alberto Arene from the UNDP office in Honduras called ‘the democrats’. This point and lessons that emerge from it are worth pursuing further. Experiences of supporting labour unions or social movements in Latin America may resonanate elsewhere in the developing world – for example, when is it that supporting non-traditional actors like trade unions can help to bring about desirable developmental change? What can donor experiences in Latin America say about that? This issue also ties in with ongoing ODI work on democratic assistance, voice and accountability and the need for donors to work with stakeholders outside their comfort zone.
  • As highlighted by Adam Behrendt and Andrés Mejía, it is extremely important (though challenging) to engage more fully with political parties while understanding the incentives framework within which they operate. How can one work towards providing political parties with legitimacy and credibility when, according to opinion polls, they are among the least trusted democratic institutions throughout Latin America (and elsewhere in the developing world)? Can something like this be done by external actors? How can political parties be made more programmatic?
  • Beyond engagement with political parties, how can campaign platforms be translated into policies, and how can these policies, in turn, be implemented? As Kristen Sample pointed out, this issue remains quite problematic. Moreover, the challenge that David Booth raised during his presentation – the question of whether political parties can act as effective and purposive checks and balances – still needs to be addressed. There is no question that parliaments (and political parties) matter, but it is still necessary to explore whether they can be counted on to make a substantive difference in development policy-making.
  • It is also important to remember that democracy may not always look pretty from a developmental perspective, given that it tends to encourage the fragmentation of interests, and some may be heard more loudly than others.
  • This leads to another point that may not have been emphasised sufficiently during the course of the two-day proceedings: changes that end up being pro-poor may not have been originally or intentionally designed to be. This highlights the critical importance of alliances and the need to identify interests that may be complementary to those of the poor.

Clearly there are no easy or straightforward answers to solve the puzzle of the politics of poverty and inequality in Latin America, or elsewhere. The new frontier of grappling with the politics of development more seriously is a challenge that ODI is embracing in much of its ongoing work.

Alina Rocha Menocal is a Research Fellow at ODI working on issues of governance and aid.