02 January 2010

Article: Olivier Rubin refutes the merits of democracy in famine protection

For the 30th Anniversary Conference of the Development Studies Association (DSA), taking place in London in November 2008 on the theme of hidden forces in social and economic development – "Development's Invisible Hands" –, I convened a panel "Anti-Democratic Development".

One of the participants in that highly selective panel was Olivier Rubin (a recent PhD graduate and Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen) who ended up winning the prize awarded by the "European Journal of Development Research" (EJDR) to the best conference paper for his essay, "The Merits of Democracy in Famine Protection – Fact or Fallacy?" – an ambitious attempt to refute (or at least draw into question) an influential theory of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen (Harvard and Cambridge).

Rubin's paper has now been published in the November 2009 issue of EJDR (vol. 21/5: 699-717), as part of a Symposium of articles based on papers given in various panels of the 2008 conference. They treat forces as different as religion and conflict, political institutions, non-governmental action, the securitization of aid, and migration.

While I helped shape Rubin's paper both with extensive feedback after the conference and as peer reviewer for EJDR, I only provided input on fine-tuning an already impressive piece of work and all credit goes to him. That said, I greatly appreciate his public acknowledgement: "I wish to extend my gratitude to Erich Kofmel, Managing Director at the Sussex Centre for the Individual and Society (SCIS), for convening the DSA 2008 Panel on Anti-Democratic Development. This article is highly inspired by his somewhat provocative idea of an anti-democratic bias in much of the Development Studies discipline." Thank you.

The EJDR made Rubin's article accessible free of charge until the end of 2009 (as of today, it can still be read):


Here's the abstract of the paper: "Amartya Sen's assertion that democratic institutions together with a free press provide effective protection from famine is one of the most cited and broadly accepted contributions in modern famine theory. Through a mix of qualitative and quantitative evidence, this article critically examines whether indeed democracies do provide protection from famine. The qualitative research builds on analyses of democratic political dynamics in famine situations (in Bihar 1966, Malawi 2002 and Niger 2005), whereas the quantitative research looks for cross-country correlations between political systems and famine incidents. The article calls into question the strength of the link between democracy and famine protection. Famines have indeed occurred in electoral democracies where the political dynamics at times were counterproductive in providing protection from famine. The article concludes that to fully grasp the complexities of famine, one should replace monocausal political explanations (such as democracy protects against famine) with general tools for context-specific political analysis."

Rubin finds that, "[r]egrettably, the discipline of Development Studies has often had a tendency of displaying less interest in critically testing assertions about the merits of democratic institutions than it has in exposing the adverse consequences of more authoritarian political structures. [...]

"Pointing to democratic mechanisms with a positive effect on famine protection does not exclude the possibility that others, even more effective, can be identified under authoritarian rule. The argument about the merits of democracy in famine protection has clear roots in cost-effectiveness reasoning (given the assumed superiority of the democratic political system, what are the processes that could account for effective famine protection?) when one really ought to rely on cost-benefit reasoning (under different political rules, which political processes foster the most effective famine protection?).

"From the perspective of short-term famine relief, it is not difficult to present arguments that could favor a more authoritarian political system. Some of the counterproductive mechanisms described [for democracies] (log rolling, vote trading, pork barrel politics, not in my backyard and the political blame game) would be largely absent or assume a different form under authoritarian regimes. [...] It is also possible that authoritarian regimes could manage a much prompter and more extensive mobilization of resources for famine prevention when needed. An elected government might have to engage in compromises and negotiations with other political parties, which might not only slow down the process, but also avert resources to other political purposes through log rolling.

"Theoretically, therefore, the democracy hypothesis is not convincing."

In his article, Rubin refers to a Malawian saying: "Sungadye demokalase, which loosely translated means that you cannot eat democracy."

EJDR is a prestigious and well-regarded publication of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI).

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