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Turning dictatorships into democracies: Lessons from Gandhi

Human Rights

US, Afghan forces conduct checkpoint operations near Yosef Khel.

Nurturing the authority of an approved centralized, omnipresent government can exacerbate instability through mistrust and unfitting policy, argues Tej Parikh.

The West’s latest statebuilding experiments are showing little sign of progress. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are at their strongest since the US-led invasion in 2001; in Iraq, the Islamic State group – which sprouted in the post-Saddam power vacuum – remains, among other reasons, a blight upon effective governance; while in Libya, partisan divides are undermining the UN-backed unity government.

But the misfortunes are no longer surprising. The traditional approach of rapidly attempting to transform once dictatorial states into stable democracies, by nurturing the authority of an approved centralized government, has been decried as insufficient, unrealistic, and, ultimately, flawed.

Sectarian divide, the legacy of war, and unique geopolitics are all impediments to creating a legitimate, capable, and sufficiently resilient administration, from the outside. What’s more, when opening surgery on fragile states, international policymakers often suffer from short-termism, high public expectations, and – particularly in post-conflict environments – low implementation capacity, notes Sir Paul Collier, an eminent economist.

An alternate approach to gung-ho external interventionism is what some are calling ‘Islands of Stability.’ It is a long-term, localized strategy which aims to create and build upon existing pockets of legitimized governance inside fragile states, which may usually correspond to areas of distinct clan, ethnic, language, and religious background.

The logic goes that it makes more sense to grow-out these ‘islands’ rather than attempting to manufacture an overarching state to govern over a geography of diverse, competing, and often hostile, political identities. The state itself should rather delegate the role of governing to local rulers who are more legitimate in the eyes of a regionalist public.

Otherwise, an omnipresent state can exacerbate instability through mistrust, identity-based animosity, and unfitting policy. The weak governance resulting from which only drives deprivation and harbors insurgency – as experiences in parts of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya can attest.

The concept is not too dissimilar from Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of ‘Gram Swaraj’, or village self-governance, for an independent India. Gandhi advocated a decentralized form of rulership in which each village would oversee its own decision-making, and displace the centralized institutions of the British Raj.

Panchayati Raj’, panchayat meaning assembly of five and raj meaning rule, would form the foundation of Gandhi’s national political system – that is, each village serving as its own mini state managed by five annually elected leaders. For Gandhi, the structure had three key advantages; it avoided overbearing state leadership, it taught self-sufficiency, and above all, it made democracy more responsive to its citizens.

Each village unit would have minimal essential institutions, with a primary focus on agriculture and education. While voluntary roles would help coordinate public services and external relations to ensure villagers had a stake in community politics: ‘Democracy is an impossible thing until power is shared by all…’ believed Gandhi.

Today, in some rural areas, village panchayats have been formally integrated into the Indian governance system as the basic unit of local administration, and as part of a wider decentralization effort. Otherwise, India has adopted a largely centralized political system.

Gandhi’s ideal of an entirely stateless nation and volunteer-led administration is largely unfeasible in fragile states where the central pooling and coordination of public services, natural resources, and external relations is critical to national welfare. What’s more, decentralization to create greater autonomy must be weighed up against entrenching divisions and encouraging secessionism.

Nonetheless, the broader values of Gram Swaraj – and its ties to the ‘Islands of Stability’ approach – hold key lessons for statebuilders today.

The first is the importance of self-reliance. Over US $113 billion has been pumped into Afghanistan for the US’ reconstruction effort. A significant portion of that has fallen into the wrong hands, feeding corruption and bypassing real development. Moreover, continuous aid flows into developing nations also drive dependence, and become an obstacle to organic growth. Gandhi stressed the importance of self-sufficiency to drive sustainable long-term development.

Secondly, giving civilians a vested interest in their own success through active roles in their local communities can better incentivize them to invest in the welfare of their societies. Moreover, villagers – with a better understanding of local dynamics – can more effectively implement programs that suit them. Ceding power to a centralized government might otherwise eliminate the need for locals to sustainably manage their villages, and lead to ineffective policies.

And finally, as state interventionists are learning, democracy cannot be forced in developing nations unless the seeds for it exist.

‘The distinguishing mark of a universal value is not that it already enjoys universal acceptance,’ said development economist Amartya Sen. ‘But that people everywhere have reason to see it as valuable.’

Gandhi was quick to realize that a powerful state would lack the legitimacy and capacity to deliver democracy at a localized level, particularly in diverse new nations. And so, villagers would see no value in it.

Ultimately, Gandhi’s model and the ‘Islands of Stability’ approach both stress the importance of bottom-up development. The idea, in practice, is that humanitarian support and technical assistance to build self-sustaining and democratic geographic units can subsequently be joined to encompass broader portions of a nation, which can help to nurture statebuilding from the inside-out.

It addresses some of Collier’s key concerns for operating in weak states. It takes a long-term view, avoids the grand expectations of powerful new regimes, and empowers citizens to take control above operationally, and informationally, challenged external interveners. And it needn’t replace efforts to build an effective top-down national bureaucracy; rather it can help to better support it.

And so, Gandhi’s emphasis on grass-roots development holds valuable insights not only for statebuilding policy, but also for troubled state-society relationships in the western world today. ‘[T]rue democracy cannot be worked by 20 men sitting at the center,’ he once said. ‘It has to be worked from below, by the people of every village.’

Tej Parikh is a global policy analyst and journalist. He received his master's degree from Yale University, with a focus on international development. His worked is archived at The Global Prism. He Tweets @tejparikh90.

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