The New York Office of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) organized on 1 September a seminar exploring the links between democracy and development, a vast and complex issue where political rhetoric often supplants rational analysis. Yvonne Lodico, Head of UNITAR New York Office, presented the issues at stake and asked whether democracy is a necessary element for economic development or an obstacle in view of massive development needs.

Morton Halperin, former US diplomat and senior advisor to the Open Society Foundations, started from the premise that to understand the link between democracy and development, one needs to understand the nature of economic development. Development has to be based on a country’s own culture. The Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, Manjeev Singh Puri, highlighted that India, as the world’s largest democracy, is doing its own reflection on democracy and development. India chose democracy after independence because it was the best way to manage the country’s population and to ensure a sense of ownership of the government, especially after colonization. He noted, however, that a country needs strong institutions to develop, no matter the form of government. But does this mean that the existence of a benevolent dictator could allow one country to achieve development without democracy? According to Morton Halperin, China is testing this very theory.

Dan Zhang, Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of China to the United Nations, disagreed with this statement. According to Ms. Zhang, the socialist democratic system in China is based on its history and on its own understanding of democracy, adapted to the Chinese culture. The Chinese Communist Party takes a people-centred approach to improve the livelihood of its people and the rule of law. Roland Rich, Executive Head of the UN Democracy Fund, also pointed out that the “development states” in East Asia ultimately failed because they adopted a market-based model of development to bring about economic growth, but ignored the people. Therefore, democracies achieve a qualitative growth - their political leadership must maintain popular support. Also there was an emphasis that a true democracy will strive to limit corruption and to promote good governance.

Overall, it seems that everyone can agree that democracy brings about sustainable development. Also, it is apparent after the discussion that the idea of democracy is adapted differently according to each nation’s history and cultures.

The video above is also available on the UN Webcast.

More information about the event can be obtained on the UNITAR events page.