Democracy and structural adjustment in Africa
by Bernard PETIT
The African scene is dominated by two powerful ideas-the
transition to democracy and the notion that economic reforms must be undertaken
Economic reform, which began to be put into effect and attract
support from external funders in the early 1980s, is a sine qua non of a return
to growth in most of the countries concerned. Yet since deficits have to be
reduced and imbalances righted, reform means bringing in measures to shrink
demand, which may, and usually do, entail high social costs.
Human rights and democratisation, the vital underpinning of
lasting, sustainable development, are changing African societies and plunging
the continent into a new phase in its history.
These parallel trends are welcome, of course, but it must also
be realised that running economic and political reform simultaneously poses
difficult problems and is one of the major challenges for the African States and
their external partners in the world today.
Why a challenge?
Because the opening to democracy has of course aroused
enthusiasm among people who, in many cases, have been oppressed by authoritarian
regimes, but also aroused great economic expectations. The 'forces in society'
clearly expect a democratic process to make visible and rapid changes to their
state of economic wellbeing.
But democracy itself does not bring growth. That should be the
job of the structural adjustment process. Unfortunately, however, structural
adjustment, with its trail of hardship and austerity and its slow-acting effects
on growth, is ill suited to meeting the immediate expectations born in the
transition to democracy, for there may well be a negative correlation between
democratisation and economic reform programmes, in the short term at least.
Experience seems to suggest that, when it comes to enforcing
programmes of reform, authoritarian regimes have more means of coercion
available to them than democratic ones, which have to engage in dialogue with
the other forces at work in the economy and society and cope with a free press,
the right to demonstrate, the right to strike and so on.
The best-known example here is of course the Chilean 'success
story', or the unadulterated form of adjustment devised by the economists of the
Chicago school (who were unencumbered by either social claims or pressure
groups), and which had such impressive results in terms of growth under the
Pinochet regime-although those who were poor before Pinochet were still poor
In fact, the dialogue which starts up under a democratic
system-and it is absolutely vital that that dialogue should take place-is the
very essence of what is usually termed the internalisation of programmes of
But if this dialogue coincides with what can easily be a fragile
process of democratisation, it is bound to mean some degree of adaptation
(particularly in terms of taking reform measures in stages and the need to take
maximum account of their economic and social effects), which will take the
country out of its adjustment process for a time or at least prevent it from
fully meeting the performance criteria agreed on with its external partners.
In situations of this kind, its partners, and the Bretton Woods
Institutions especially, tend to suspend or completely withdraw their financial
The State in question, now without the financing it needs to
carry out the agreed reforms, sees arrears piling up and deficits mounting and
ultimately abandons the structural adjustment programme, thus opening the way to
inexorable economic decline, general discontent in society when expectations are
no longer met and a serious threat to the stability and democratic viability of
the State. This is an open door for the return of the authoritarian system and
the countless excesses it brings with it.
This disaster scenario may be something of a caricature, but
there are signs, here and there, of the transition to democracy losing ground or
grinding to a halt altogether as the economic situation in the countries in
question declines. ln a democratisation process, there is a very fine line
between the need to run growth-generating economic reforms and the demands which
express the legitimate aspirations of the people.
Governments must, in fact, constantly adapt to the economic
logic of structural adjustment programmes and the political logic of
democratisation processes and reconcile the demands of their constituencies at
home (the voters) with the demands of their constituencies abroad (the funders)
A democratic approach should of course not be an excuse for
displaying a high degree of economic laxity or allowing a government team to
'buy' its support or legitimacy with the wholesale granting of each and every
exaggerated corporate or other claim, often from urban social groups and leading
to demagogic policies which reject the reforms of substance that would reverse
At the same time, however, it would be wrong for beneficiary
States' external partners to ignore this democratic dimension, a feature of
which should be that it prompts the international donor community to be more
pragmatic and display more political sense, particularly when it comes to the
rate and progressiveness of the projected reforms.
Above all, the democratic dimension should lead the Bretton Wood
Institutions to seek a dialogue and look for systematic coordination with the
State and the donor concerned, in order to see whether the mistakes and
slippages which occur in implementing the reform actually threaten the economic
viability of the structural adjustment process; before they somewhat
mechanically withdraw financial support.
When the time is right, the Community will take the necessary
steps to ensure that the donors involved maintain the continuity and coherence
of the framework of support for the reforms under way in the States concerned.
The external partners of countries engaged in both a move to
democracy and structural adjustment must be aware of the considerable danger and
serious political responsibility involved in being excessively and sometimes
unrealistically harsh in their perception of economic reform and thereby
threatening a fragile democratic process and opening the door to the return of
the previous regimes and all their excesses.