In Defence Of Meles Zenawi: No Direct Relation Between Democracy and Development

(By Merkeb Negash)

“[i]f all comparative studies are viewed together, the hypothesis that there is no clear relationship between economic development and democracy in either direction remains extremely plausible.” – Amartya Sen (1999) “Development as Freedom”

Some recent articles on Ethiopian blogs and Newspapers/Magazines are portraying the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as if he was of the conviction that there is no relationship between democracy and development and by extension of a ‘no need of democracy’ in poor societies.

Bisrat Teshome in his article, titled “Making Sense of Development through Freedom” published in Addisstandard (Jan 04, 2013), even went further and adamantly declared that “Meles Zenawi died convinced of a no relationship between democracy and development”. He didn’t even hesitate nor tried to read Meles’ works before he dared to arrogantly declare “[Meles] was wrong”! I specifically chose this article because I found it being a textbook example of Ethiopian opposition’s pathological nature of ‘shooting first and aiming latter’.

While the writer chose to conceptualize development as freedom (Amartya Sen’s famous dictum), he provided Meles’ World Economic Forum speech “there is no direct relationship between growth and democracy historically and theoretically” as an evidence for his pseudo-analysis – that Meles Zenawi was/died wrong. His whole analysis depends on these two assumptions.  Bisrat Teshome was/is wrong!

Meles never argued- be it implicitly or explicitly- that there is no relationship between democracy and, development in the way Sen defined. As the writer himself wrote- albeit unconsciously- Meles was of the conviction that “there is no direct relationship between growth and democracy”. Growth and development (whether one defines development as freedom or in its conventional way) are not synonyms. There is a substantial difference between economic growth and development in general. The difference becomes huge if one uses Amartya Sen so as to conceptualize development. Therefore, one cannot use Sen’s definition of development and attempt to invalidate Meles’ conviction of “no direct relationship between growth and democracy”. The writer didn’t know or didn’t want us to know the fact that there is a huge difference between growth and development (be it in its conventional sense or as freedom). Logicians call such arguments “The straw man fallacy” where an arguer distorts an opponent’s argument for the purpose of more easily attacking it, demolishes the distorted argument, and then concludes that the opponent’s real argument has been demolished. By making growth and development identical, the writer attacked Meles’ speech at the World Economic Forum, and then concluded that Meles’ overall conviction has been demolished. Here is where the writer got his ‘analysis’ wrong!

In a stark contrast to the distorted version of the writer, Meles was of the assumption that democracy is both an end in and by itself, and the only means to bringing about a sustainable development. In his “African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings” Meles argues “while there has been accelerated development without democratization, democratization has been an essential element of the African renaissance”. Meles further argues, “[i]n poor developing countries, a developmental state, accelerated development and stable democracies appear to be parts of the same package”. The writer doesn’t seem to have read this or has intentionally overlooked this fact so as to help him easily attack Meles. He didn’t even care to mention Meles’ assertion (in the same speech the writer quoted) that democracy is the only option of keeping diverse African nations united. Once again, the writer committed the fallacy of suppressed evidence when he presumed that no important evidence has been overlooked or suppressed by the premises when in fact it has!

Of course, Meles didn’t believe in “bedtime stories, contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy”. Both historical evidences and development theories prove him right. The unprecedented economic performance of the East Asian Tigers and some Latin American countries where development was achieved under the tutelage of authoritarianism is typical empirical evidence. Theories of development are not any different. To the dismay of the writer, Amartya Sen (1999) himself in his “Development as Freedom” argues, “[i]f all comparative studies are viewed together, the hypothesis that there is no clear relationship between economic development and democracy in either direction remains extremely plausible”. These are the same words Bisrat is trying to deconstruct by using the same author! How could one and the same argument be an ‘unwaveringly perfect’ when it is of a Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen and,  ‘wrong’ when it comes to Meles? This is why I am arguing that Bisrat et al have a pathological problem of ‘shooting first and aiming latter’.

Yet one should not assume Meles believed democracy was a barrier to socio-economic development nor a luxury poor states could not afford. In lieu, he had an unwavering belief of democracy as a sin-qua-non for socioeconomic development on the one hand and an end in and by itself on the other.  Arguing that there is no direct relationship between democracy and socio-economic development is one thing; asserting that development should be conceptualized as freedom is another.  For anyone who objectively compares Meles and Sen, they are of one and the same conviction. Period! However, discerning (admitting is the right word) this fact requires leaving one’s idiosyncrasies aside and looking at the facts objectively. Unfortunately, this is a rare gift only few are blessed with.


Please check the archives for more on the issues raised above.

* This article is part of the “Post-Meles 2012″ Special Edition of this blog.


Merkeb Negash, is a Lecturer of Political Science and International Relations at Jimma University. He is a blogger on HornAffairs and can be reached at elroenegash(at)