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motion for debate

Discussion / motion for debate

backcover EDM3

Western notions of democracy stand in the way of endogenous development

Explanation of the motion
Democracy (meaning rule of the people in Greek) as a concept in the west stems from a tradition that includes political pluralism, equality before the law, the right to petition, civil liberties and human rights.

The current government in Bolivia, headed by Evo Morales (see photo), presents itself as 'indigenous' and therefore different from western democracies. COMPAS partner Cesar Escobar elaborates: 'In the case of the Morales government, the proposed new constitution would enable indigenous peoples to exercise forms of governance in accordance with their own customs at the local level. Nevertheless, at national level western-style democracy will continue to predominate. At present, indigenous and western forms of democracy merely coexist.'

COMPAS partner David Millar reflects: 'In my view, 'good governance' is what we need to focus on. This is about good decision-making and above all loyalty and accountability. I wonder whether in Africa our formal governments make good decisions and, more importantly, whether they hold themselves accountable for the decisions they make. Traditional institutions appear to be doing quite well (at least on the loyalty part), but how do these institutions maintain credibility? Endogenous development offers us the opportunity to study traditional institutions, systems and structures and how they operate in their complexities.'

COMPAS partner Agnes Apusigah adds: 'What I see in Africa is a shady approximation of the traditional systems at the national level: democracy brewed in the Africa Pot, perhaps. But whose interests does it serve? Can we talk of a true African system of democratic governance in our time? One that has not been misappropriated to serve interests other than those originally intended! I am optimistic that when we mature in our efforts to Africanise, the product will better serve African interests.' Do endogenous forms of governance have the potential for greater accountability and loyalty?

Join the debate
We invite readers to respond to the motion Western notions of democracy stand in the way of endogenous development. Contributions from Compas partners are already on the website, and a selection of the responses will be published in the ED-Magazine 4. Please restrict your contribution to not more than 200 words.

Post your views

If you would like to see the discussion on the second motion:
Spirituality alone cannot fill stomachs, click here.

If you would like to see the discussion on the first motion:
The Millennium Development Goals give poor people false hope
, click here.


Prof. Soodursun Jugessur, Mauritius

Western notions of democracy work best when the population is adequately educated. The recognition of personal rights, privileges and duties is the basis for proper decision- making. This, however, has been generally stifled in traditional societies where development has been promoted with a view to preserve the power of a few over the majority, with all the nepotism and corruption recognized by modern society. The Panchayat system of governance that prevailed in rural India for generations has not done much to empower the people. Only legislation could improve the situation. Nor has the tribal governance in Africa and elsewhere. People were made to accept their fate and serve the others as though this was ordained by their destiny. In rural tribal Africa, nobody had the right to question the Chief’s decision, however partial this could be. And those who were servile gained some privilege or other to move up.

Hence to claim that western notions of democracy stand in the way of endogenous development is questionable. Endogenous development implies the participation of all without fear of persecution by the powerful. Development in harmony with nature, where respect and fellow feelings towards all living creatures are observed as a matter of personal and social commitment, is the way ahead.


Kobina Esia-Donkoh, Ghana

I agree. The first thing to remind ourself is the fact that democracy is not a western concept. Before the arrival of the west in Africa, and Ghana, people were being governed by chiefs/queens, 'ebusuampanyimfo' and the traditional priests. This compelled the colonialists to govern through the chiefs, a practice known as 'indirect rule' in Ghana. The import western democracy in its wholeness does not therefore fit into our indigenous democratic structure where the chief is very loyal, responsible and accountable to his people, and the people committed and loyal to their leaders with whom together, they reason together to achieve endogenous development.

The current western democracy where external but major actors neglect the beliefs systems and practice patterns of the people who development is intended for. This defeats the concept of good governance especially where these major actors are loyal and accountable to another external master, either the IMF, World Bank or the executive.  


Bern Guri, CECIK, Ghana


Consensus is also important in Africa, often involving a long process of discussion. Minorities are heard, national unity is not based on trade-offs.

David Millar, Ghana

In my view ‘good governance’ is about good decision-making and above all being loyal and accountable for decisions so made. More and more I begin to wonder whether in the case of Africa our formal governments make good decisions and, worse still, whether they hold themselves accountable for the decisions so made. Traditional institutions appear to be doing (at least the loyalty part) quite well. How do these institutions maintain a modicum of credibility? Endogenous development offers us the opportunity to study the traditional institutions, systems, and structures and how they operate in their complexities. It is only when we have understood these that we can start to talk about ‘any form of grafting’. We sure will get to grafting African alternatives some day, especially if we consider the number of conflicts characterising every election and the various governments of national unity (which are already various forms of grafting).

Agnes Apusigah, Ghana

Indeed, if we take accountability, decision-making, transparency and all the other ingredients that the World Bank and donors include in the basket, I agree that traditional institutions have and maintain a lead in good governance. But I also think, in the face of bad governance at the formal level, that the Traditional Authorities of today look good.

More importantly, I think we need to visit endogenous development and try to understand what good governance has meant, especially in the past for lessons that can inform the present and future. One immediate thing that I can speak about is the question of equity. From my own traditions, I learned that communal property was set aside to take care of all, especially those whose families had less property. Traditional authorities took care of such property for the common good. This, for me, has been a way of balancing resources to serve the needs of the underprivileged or have-nots. The elder's custodianship was one of ensuring equity. He did not dole out portions to each and everyone at his will or even equally, but he ensured that as and when there was need, portions were given.

Let’s take the example of managing staple foods produced from the family farm. The produce was stored in the family barn after harvest. Individual harvests from non-staples and side farms were kept by individuals. However, produce from the common, family farm was stored in the family barn. Every so often, the family head would visit the barn and issue measured portions for each hearth-hold. The women received these and could then process them for food over the intended period. The women took turns, could see what was given out and even in their absence, other women heads of the hearthhold would receive the portions on their behalf. It was the moral duty and divine obligation of the family head to ensure that no one from his household went hungry. It was believed that if the head cheated on behalf of his own hearth-hold, the Gods would sanction him! In the case of cattle, all marriages were paid for from the common family kraal. This was good governance. But can we say so now? Are our traditional authorities playing these roles? Are they guided by these standards of morality and spirituality?
I do not think so? What do you think?

G. Hariramamurthy, India

In this debate, have we looked at the relationship between economics and politics? Have we examined the political arrangements, in terms of exogenous (western) models of democracy, now being tried out in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and their influence on economic performance and development of these nation states, as against the endogenous traditional governance models of Africa, Asia and Latin America? 
I think that there is indeed ‘a gap between the local, indigenous, forms of conducting politics (often based on consensus or participatory forms of government) and the way national government conduct themselves, whether as a government of national unity (some African countries) or a leftist authoritarian government that uses indigenous rhetoric (Bolivia). 
But, are all leftist governments are authoritarian? At the same time, are all democratic governments are really non-authoritarian?

In answer to the question ‘how can this gap be bridged?’ there must be strengthening of institutions of local self governance, such as Gram Panchayats, with a clear role and power. But, this process has not really been given its due importance in our country. Only when this happens, do I see a future in which endogenous development could lead to genuine forms of national governance.
I also agree with David Millar that good governance is about good decision making, being loyal and accountable for decisions made by the decision makers. In the case of the Indian experience, often we find the western democracy model of governance has remained far away from being loyal and accountable. But in the case of traditional institutions of governance, both the issues of loyalty and credibility appear to be doing better.