Waylaid Dialectic

August 21, 2011

Teh Non-Government is no alternative to teh government!

Filed under: Institutions — terence @ 8:53 am

Chris Blattman thinks Pranab Bardan’s essay on NGO’s, democracy and economic development in the Boston Review is ‘outstanding’. I’m not so sure: ‘interesting but unconvincing’ is how I’d describe it.

It’s not just that article is long on speculation and short on specifics, and actual evidence, but more than this its two core arguments strike me as tenuous. The arguments being:

1. That the particularist concerns of individual NGOs and advocacy groups are no substitute for broad based democratically inclusive political parties.

2. That the rights claims and legal actions of NGOs come with trade-offs. Specifically, they may come at the cost of economic development.

On point 1 — first, it strikes me as premature to assume that NGOs are a substitute as opposed to the early building blocks. In Brazil, at least, the Workers Party sprung out of civil society. Trades Unions played a major role but so did other activist groups and social groups. Second, even if — in the case of India, which Bardan uses to illustrate his arguments — there’s no nascent democratic movement buried in the social movements, it’s still a major leap to argue that they are actually a causal impediment to its formation. This, I think, is very unlikely. Rather, I’d say the NGOs are the response of activists and ordinary people to a resolutely politically unequal society. What does Bardan actually expect Indians to do? Sit quietly, waiting patiently for high quality multi-party democracy to arrive someday while, in the meantime, wrongs are committed against them?

Bardan’s argument here is essentially the same one used often by aid critics: if what you’re doing isn’t perfect, then clearly it isn’t any good.

On point 2 — is there any actual evidence that people engaging in collective action in search of their rights is something that has costs in terms of medium-long run economic development? Bardan provides none (remember India is a growth success story in recent years). For what it’s worth there’s good empirical evidence (ala Sokoloff and Engerman, Rodrik, Acemoglu and Robinson etc) that suggests that political and legal equality and broadly distributed access to economic institutions such as property rights are essential to economic growth. And I’d say, if anything, India’s NGOs are promoting this not forestalling it.

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