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Wishful thinking, wilful blindness and artful amnesia: power and the UNDP’s promotion of democracy in Botswana, Namibia and Tanzania: Zoe Wilson



If there is such thing as the development zeitgeist, it is today embodied by the linked concepts of good governance, democracy and human rights. In the pages that follow, this trinity is referred to as the ‘democracy agenda’. More specifically, the Report is concerned with the related programmes of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP), most notably rule of law, media reform, civil-society support, election-support and state capacity-building. In the light of widespread evidence that, for the United Nations (UN), the democracy agenda does not crown 50 years of stunning development achievements, what might this new agenda hold?

But first, ‘Why focus on the United Nations?’ Many argue that the more pernicious outcomes have been yielded by the conditionalities of the International Financial Institutions – such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. As I hope it will become clear, more caution is needed when drawing distinctions between the institutions of global governance. Their programmes may be far more symbiotic and interdependent than fans of the humanitarian work of the United Nations may be willing to concede. The UNDP plays a particularly important role in setting the global development agenda, especially as the author of core development texts such as the Human Development Report (HDR). Since 1990, the global humanitarian machinery has looked to the Development Reports for cues and guidance. They are read by students and practitioners alike and constitute a key signpost to trends in donor spending. In 2002, the HDR was subtitled: Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World, and referred to one or all of the trinity of concepts at issue here on every page.

What promise, then, does this new agenda hold?cently, both Thomas Weiss (2000) and Jean Philippe Thérien (1999) encouragingly evaluated new turns in the UNDP’s democratic thinking, applauding progress towards an inclusive and broadly defensible model. This model includes an ever-widening number of western ‘symbols’ of rights-friendly democratic governance, including legislative support, judicial reform and electoral assistance (Weiss 2000: 10-11).

Further, they argue, new turns in governance thinking deal effectively with the concept of ‘exclusion’ and the relationship of political marginalisation to material deprivation (Thérien 1999: 13).

Is their optimism warranted? To answer this question, the following sections draw on in-country interviews with UN country staff and self-identified civil society organisations, country studies and literatures, and the academic literature more broadly. By illuminating multiple perspectives at multiple levels of analysis, this Report seeks to bring texture to the relationship between dominant aspects of the UNDP’s democracy agenda2 and the sometimes darker dimensions of state power (Pierson 1996; Sorensen 1996), with special reference to the country cases.3

Five key themes central to the democracy agenda were selected to illustrate this dynamic: 1) rights-based law, 2) media, 3) civil society, 4) elections and 5) state-capacitybuilding. These themes correlate to the standard components of the UNDP’s basic institutional model for democratic governance. They are also central to the 2002 Human Development Report’s ‘Subjective’ and ‘Objective’ indicators of governance (UNDP 2002: 37-45), and, finally, they also correlate well to the ‘sensitive governance areas’ identified by Weiss (2000: 10).

By examining each of these themes in turn, the article establishes conceptual density around the assessment that the UNDP’s democracy agenda has an overlooked propensity to contribute to the construction and re-construction of a space where authoritarian practices and elite capture will flourish. It may also, simultaneously, contribute to relative citizen powerlessness. Thus, despite an agenda rhetoric that suggests to the casual reader that UNDP praxis can and will ‘take into account all the complexity of the social environment in which poverty exists’ (Thérien 1999: 14), there is much room for scepticism. Rather, the democracy discourse harbours assumptions and discounts complexities in ways that may ultimately frustrate efforts to enhance life chances across the social spectrum.

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