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Aid, accountability and democracy in Africa

Mkandawire, Thandika (2010) Aid, accountability and democracy in Africa. Social Research, 77 (4). pp. 1149-1182. ISSN 0037-783X

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At the core of democracy is the idea that governments must be systematically responsive to the desires and interests of citizens as expressed through the electoral process which is the principal mechanism of democratic accountability as it is through this process that politicians are called to account by a sovereign electorate with powers to sanction them. The effectiveness of the process depends on the viability of democratic institutions and the citizens' engagement, political sophistication and access to information, which in turn impact on political contestability and transparency. Ensuring accountability is difficult enough if there is only one elected sovereign in a particular space. It becomes profoundly more complex when two sovereigns act upon the same space but are accountable to different constituencies and when the power of one of the two sovereigns is likely to impinge on the accountability of the other. In this paper I consider the problem of accountability in African democracies that are heavily dependent on aid from richer democracies. Concentrating on aid as a constraint on accountability in no way suggests it is the only culprit in this respect. There are many other factors that impinge on accountability at the national level. Indeed it is the interplay with and at times the connivance of local and external factors that have undermined accountability in Africa The internal factors include the lack of transparency of national governments and the "smoke and mirrors" political practices that come along with it; the undemocratic mores of the political class (an aspect of the authoritarian legacy that does not see accountability as a moral imperative but as an undesirable aspect of democracy); the contradictory political affiliations of voters reflecting conflicting ideological, ethnic or clientelistic loyalties that undermines the collective action required to ensure accountability; the institutional barriers to free and fair elections; the strange behavior of legislatures that have weakened themselves by ceding more powers to the executive etc. Each of these has been subject of analysis in the literature on democracy in Africa I will argue that although many donors have invested considerable resources in support of democratization, they have also, simultaneously, proceeded to circumscribe the reach and competence of democratic institutions and their accountability to the citizenry in aid-receiving countries. Even as they swear by democracy, part of the aid establishment is still preoccupied with finding ways and means of insulating aid from the encumbrances of democratic politics in recipient countries by creating what have been aptly termed "authoritarian enclaves" (Maravall 1994). I will also suggest that the notion of accountability in developing countries, especially the aid-dependent ones, is best understood not only in the context of democratization but also in the context of the much more fraught aid/donor relationship. Aid, by its very nature, involves power relations that go beyond the adage "who pays the piper, calls the tune". Any exercise of power necessitates and creates its own institutions. Aid giving and receiving often set in motion a whole range of asymmetrical relationships that may take on lives of their own. In such a context, preoccupation with accountability is driven at least as much by ideas about the relationship between the donors and the aid recipient countries as by the inherent meaning of democracy…

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2010 Center for Public Scholarship
Divisions: International Development
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HJ Public Finance
J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
J Political Science > JZ International relations
JEL classification: F - International Economics > F3 - International Finance > F35 - Foreign Aid
Date Deposited: 07 Jan 2011 15:29
Last Modified: 16 May 2024 01:05

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