17 January 2010

Article: Is Democracy Good for the Poor?

Another article by Michael Ross, critical of the merits of democracy in a development context: "Is Democracy Good for the Poor?" ("American Journal of Political Science", 50 [4], October 2006: pp. 860-74).

Full text available here:


Abstract: "Many scholars claim that democracy improves the welfare of the poor. This article uses data on infant and child mortality to challenge this claim. Cross-national studies tend to exclude from their samples nondemocratic states that have performed well; this leads to the mistaken inference that nondemocracies have worse records than democracies. Once these and other flaws are corrected, democracy has little or no effect on infant and child mortality rates. Democracies spend more money on education and health than nondemocracies, but these benefits seem to accrue to middle- and upper-income groups."

Some excerpts: "Perhaps this helps explain why people in newly democratized countries often vote for candidates and parties associated with former dictators. A recent United Nations survey found that 54.7% of respondents in Latin America would prefer a dictatorship to a democracy, if it would help 'resolve' their economic problems".

"This finding highlights the importance of understanding why democracies perform so badly for their poorest citizens [...]. If democracy does not matter much, what political factors do?"

"[F]or those in the bottom quintiles, [democratic] political rights produced few if any improvements in their material well-being. This troubling finding contradicts the claims made by a generation of scholars."

"Correcting this bias could alter some widely held beliefs about the merits of democratic government."

Michael L. Ross is Professor in the Department of Political Science at UCLA and Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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