Democracy and Third World Countries
By Nasim Hassan Delaware, USA

In the 21st century it is a common perception that democracy is the best form of governance and economic development is a fruit of democratic rule. The sole super power with European states intervene in Third World countries to bring democracy. However watching the Third World countries go through cycles of military rule has forced me to rethink this issue. In particular I observed Pakistan where common people pinned their hopes in democracy. They believed that democracy with freedom of press and an independent judiciary will force the ruling elite to improve the lives of the common man.

Ask any one about the past five years of democratic rule in Pakistan and compare with the immediate preceding five years of military dictatorship. The answer I received during my recent visit indicated that nothing has improved in areas of education, health care, cost of living, prices of common commodities or supply of clean drinking water. Before we look into finding the solution, I like to analyze why democracy did not make any difference in the lives of the people. Here is why democracy has not produced economic progress in Third World countries.

Archaic laws Perhaps the most important element in the economic development of any country is the rule of law. Third World countries have archaic laws that are a legacy of colonial rule. In Pakistan the prosecution of well known criminals, even murderers, cannot be done. In a military regime there is a fear of force but in a democratic government only the poor people go to jail while rich and powerful hire good lawyers to drag legal cases for years. The police and law enforcement agencies cannot go against the wishes of the ruling political parties due to posting and transfers in far away places. The Supreme Court in Pakistan asked the executive branch to investigate and prosecute the corrupt people. The ruling party dragged the cases with delays and nothing tangible happened.

This has become a critical parameter in the success or failure of cases against terrorists. The judges are scared to hear the cases of known gang members because the state cannot provide them adequate security.

Political parties

There are either no established parties based on ideology or there are a large number of parties based on ethnic, regional, religious, linguistic basis. Large parties are controlled by families with a history of political leadership. These leaders control the parties like family enterprises. The sons and daughters get elected to the top political offices without any past performance or experience. Small parties go wherever they can get a place in the power equation. There are several small parties in Pakistan who have been a part of the ruling group for many years. They just change their direction to wherever the sun rises. Another interesting phenomenon is that they get elected again. Electioneering is expensive business. An average middle class citizen of Third World countries does not have resources, connections or time to run for elections. He is born to stay out of the electoral system.

Whatever election system is installed into place the same bureaucracy and politicians contrive ways to get the maximum advantage. The states do not have resources and people to run modern day elections. The state employees know very well that they cannot go against the wishes of the ruling party. The result is that all kinds of methods are employed to steal an elections. The appeal can go for years due to old laws and it certainly costs money to pursue cases in a court. I have seen very popular candidates lose the elections due to corruption and rigging.

Tribal, religious and ethnic loyalties

The people living in the developed countries cannot understand the mindset of people living in the Third World countries. The people in rural areas are living at the survival level. The tribal chief, feudal lord, land owner or a local Pir has the resources to help and hurt the masses living within his area of influence. The politician who gets elected settles small land issues, secures jobs for his constituents and helps in lending small amounts of money and manage police matters. There is no chance for any other person to run against the entrenched political leaders. Generally it is the other feudal in the adjacent area who contests the elections. So it is a game of musical chairs. Sardar, landlord or a feudal member of society replaces the other and the cycle continues. Just look at the current ruling party members in Pakistan. They are the same faces. They belong to the second or the third generation of entrenched politicians. This political cronyism impacts the long-term growth of the country. In this global village where competition is fierce, only the most talented and competent people can steer their country in the right direction.

Rural population

In the Third World, masses still live away from urban centers. Large segment of the population works in the agriculture sector where the penetration of masses media is still very small. In addition there is a shortage of electricity so the political messages of new players has a limited reach. The lives of common people have not changed for many centuries. They struggle for day-to-day survival. I have observed common people working at least ten hours every day to meet their daily needs. Although in the cities the working people are trying very hard to educate the next generation, it is not possible for folks living away from urban centers to do so. In the past, I have known common people struggling but they would never send their kids to work during teenage years. Now you can see in all major cities young kids working in homes or small businesses. Instead of getting education in their early years they acquire no skills to get a job in the modern economy.

Change for better tomorrow

After observing all of these problems of sustaining democracy in the Third World countries, it is indeed difficult to recommend solutions to usher true democracy. The poverty stricken masses really do not care about the form of government. They want basic necessities of life like water, jobs, education and health care for children and elderly people. Here are a few recommendation that can help in improving the prevailing situation. Without basic systemic reforms there is really no way forward. It is like spinning wheels stuck on a muddy road. After years of efforts we find the people in worse conditions. Democracy is great if there are strong institutions otherwise the rich will always get away while the poor people spend years in jail on petty crimes. Here is what I believe will make a difference in the lives of the common people.

National consensus

The ruling elite of various geographical areas must agree on a broad framework of how to run the country. In the developed countries this is reflected in the constitution. But in the Third World countries the ruling elite must agree on certain fundamental principles. While dissent should be allowed and tolerated, this consensus must not be compromised. For example Independence of Judiciary, Freedom of Press with well defined limitations, Revenue collection, System of Accountability and the role of religion should be agreed. The ruling elite can change this consensus on a periodic basis like every five years. Once this is discussed and agreed upon all must follow it in letter and spirit. Without such a consensus there would be an ongoing tug of war and the country cannot progress. Reformation of laws according to local conditions Majority of Third World countries have adopted the laws of the colonial masters. These laws simply do not provide justice to the common man. Simple property cases go on for years as appeal after appeal continues. I have seen cases lingering on for more than thirty years.

Local legal experts should change the laws in every province or state to expedite the legal process. There should be limits on the number of years for every type of case. Similarly, there must be limits on the detention of poor people languishing in jails. If the state or law enforcement agencies cannot decide within a defined period of time then that person should be set free. Of course this would depend on the nature of the crime. Again the local authorities in power should decide about the limits. On my recent visit to Pakistan, I found the country running without any rule of law. There is some social stability due to deep rooted civilization norms.


Any country that wants a democratic rule must make all out efforts to educate the future generation of citizens. I have not seen democracy taking roots in any country where masses are illiterate. Educated people create a middle class or a civil society. This civil society then checks the power of politicians and ruling elite. This is the key to any development or governance. However it is perhaps the most difficult thing to accomplish in all poor countries. Poor people cannot afford education to complete in the global economy of the 21st century. The people in Third World countries do not have access to modern education. Invariably the people end up sending their kids to charity-based religious schools. Pakistan has thousands of such schools. These kids may be well versed in religious matters but cannot fit in the modern knowledgebased economy. So, the cycle of poverty continues.

Population control

Many would ask what population control has to do with democracy. Look deeply and we find that Third World countries cannot build schools, colleges, universities and hospitals to keep up with the growing population. This population increase will undo every effort in education, health care, supply of clean drinking water. The politicians, religious leaders or mass media only pay lip service to this rising tide of human population. Educated people have two to five kids while uneducated may have three to nine children. Parents do not have money to send these kids to schools. For poor kids it is a matter of daily bread and roof over their head. Lack of clean water makes people sick. Sick children lag far behind in schools and sometimes the whole family saving is gone to treat one child . With poverty stricken masses hovering around, the dream of democracy is a false illusion. These people who sell themselves for cheap labor will easily sell their votes. Why the civil society in Pakistan expects these people to vote for the right candidate is beyond me.

Alliance for peace

I have seen many countries ruined by the super power proxy wars. Third World countries have a difficult time in striving too survive in this competitive world. Powerful nations want to exploit their natural resources. These countries try to control the resources of countries who cannot safeguard themselves. So the ruling elite must ensure to follow the policies of peace and co-operation for many years. If this means sacrificing the personal power then they should step aside to maintain peace. In many countries powerful rulers have tried to stay in power at great cost to their country. This has never been easy. Perhaps democracy can provide a safety mechanism in such situations. If the leader is very popular he or she can come back again after few years instead of putting the country in danger. At this time in history there are several power centers like Europe, America, China and up until recently the former Soviet Union. Many small countries have survived under the umbrella of NATO and the USA. Many countries in Europe would not survive without this protective umbrella. However, the major challenge for many Third World countries is to live in peace with neighbors. Super powers use the neighbors to exploit small countries.

I believe every country should develop
its own model of governance to
improve the conditions of the people.
Democracy is an ongoing process of
evolution where every citizens has certain
rights. However, there are many
forms of democratic rule. Democracy
in America is not the same as the governance
system in the United Kingdom
or France.
The meteoric rise of China shows
us that countries can progress with
other models of governance too. The
main objective here is to benefit larger
humanity. The system should provide
a better life for the people in terms of
basic necessities like clean water, food,
education and health care. Any system
that gives us hope for a better tomorrow
is fine with me.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.