Doing development democratically: The foundation of open societies and open economies

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Doing development democratically: The foundation of open societies and open economies

September 15th, 2020

by Dr Graeme Ramshaw, WFD’s Director of Research and Evaluation


The international development community has been going about its governance support work all wrong. At least, that is what political thinker Karl Popper would have said. For decades, UKAid and others have been focused on the question of who should govern, deploying significant resources to facilitate the rise of ‘good leaders’ to positions of authority. While there has always been a preference that these leaders emerge through democratic means, that has not been essential to UK support. In this era of renewed populism and authoritarian responses to the pandemic, Popper’s argument that governance should be structured not in a way that relies on the identification of good leaders but in a way that allows for the avoidance or removal of bad ones, is compelling. This underpins both his concept of the ‘open society’ and why, for UKAid, doing development democratically is fundamental to its realisation. 

Open societies are generally defined as having freedom of thought and expression, with the political and legal institutions that facilitate these rights. They are an ongoing, iterative process and not an end goal. They operate within a political system; they are not separate from them.  

The kind of transparency touted by ‘good governance’ programmes is certainly a key component of such a society, but it cannot lead to substantive accountability in the absence of other features, most notably a reliable, democratic mechanism for removing bad leaders. In the absence of this, individual freedoms and the potential benefits of information and transparency cannot be realised. This is not to suggest that we should stop working on these issues but that we should be doing so in the context of doing this work democratically, recognising that democracy is a prerequisite for a sustainably open society. 

All open societies are democratic societies 

Basing his argument on the essential importance of individual freedom and responsibility, Popper contended that democracy was the only form of government, however flawed, that can be consistent with an open society. Other regimes types, however well-intentioned, can never allow for the same degree of self-determination. A dictator, even if he were benevolent, would rob all others of their responsibility, and thus of their human rights and duties. This is a sufficient basis for deciding in favour of democracy—that is, a rule of law that enables us to get rid of the government” (Popper 1998). To foster good governance and openness effectively and sustainably, the new Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) must first prioritise that these societies are functionally democratic. 

But not all democratic societies are open societies 

Democracy itself, however, is not sufficient to ensure an open society. Democratic regimes face the same temptation as autocratic ones to restrict debate – seeking order and known truths in a world that is chaotic and unpredictable. For this reason, democracies need built-in checks and balances, to restrict one power with another, to ensure a plurality of actors when it comes to exercising power. As Popper put it, these constraints must “make anti-democratic experiences too costly for those who try them: much more costly than a democratic compromise”. Open societies rely not just on democratic structures but on active democratic practice within institutions. Supporting open societies therefore requires going beyond ensuring elections; it means helping to create the conditions for open critique and self-correction. 

Open societies depend on critical opposition 

Open societies are predicated on the inevitability of error and are organised to assess and respond to that error. In doing so, they give themselves the ability to adapt and to correct mistakes when they occur. This requires critical opposition. Something that can only exist in democracies. In elevating the ideas and words of their leaders to that of infallibility, autocracies like China and North Korea eliminate the possibility of innovation and continuous improvement – they stagnate. The international community in supporting open societies must be working with a diversity of voices, promoting political party pluralism, and ensuring the rights of the opposition to provide constructive critique of government policies.  

Open economies need individual freedom – but with limitations 

Almost all countries engage in international tradethe defining feature of an open economy. As such, the absence of barriers to free market activity is now considered the key characteristic of open economies, equating them with open markets. Popper, however, was aware of the risks of unchecked liberty and contended that unrestricted freedom would inevitably lead to greater constraints as the strong would be allowed to bully the weak. In society and the economy, he called for regulation sufficient to avoid these excesses without resorting to the imposition of equality through central planning or state ownership. Again, under these conditions, democracy is the only regime type consistent with the characteristics of a well-regulated open economy.  

In practice, the evidence also seems to support this theory. Stable, transparent governments built on respect for human rights and the rule of law tend to foster environments that are conducive to open and inclusive economic growth. Conversely, regimes that oppress their populations are more likely to limit business opportunities . Countries identified as Not Free by Freedom House generally impose more red tape, build up barriers to trade, and fail to enforce contracts. This suggests that established democracies could serve their own economic interests by not just pressing for lower barriers to trade and less red tape but encouraging democratic institutions abroad and thereby improving the business environment sustainably for the future.   

Open societies and economies are incrementally dynamic, not transformational 

In rejecting top-down or centralised planning, open societies and open economies accept that change will be incremental rather than transformational. But they will know that their adaptations will be derived from real experience rather than idealised visions. Popper believed governance was about problem-solving. Testing ideas, learning from mistakes and criticism, and proposing new ideas to correct them. This continual churn of thinking and rethinking ensures that the system continues to evolve and improve over time, even after periods of poor choices.  

Democracy will not always get it right. The people will choose bad leaders from time to time, but within the open society there are always the mechanisms for self-correction that are absent from an autocratic regime. In doing development democratically, the FCDO can embrace the same ethos, putting problem-solving at the centre of their approach. The World Development Report of 2017 suggested as much when it put its emphasis on changing behaviour not structures. Change is not likely to come in transformational bursts but in hundreds of tiny shifts in how individuals think and behave. But incremental change is sustainable change and in acknowledging this the development community can function like an open society, practicing what it preaches elsewhere. 

The UK ambition to defend and strengthen open societies and open economies around the world is a laudable policy objective that must be tethered to an operating model that creates the conditions for these societies and economies to emerge and thrive. This model should be built on the premise of doing development democratically, as it is democracy and only democracy that is consistent with the individual freedoms, critical opposition, and capacity for self-correction necessary for truly open societies and open economies.  

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