Cosying up the desirability of EU democracy support in Africa to postdevelopment: a bridge too far?

by Nathan Vandeputte

This contribution is part of a blog series seeking to explore how postdevelopment approaches can inform, infuse and potentially transform the study of EU (development) policies and relationships with the Global South.

In 2018, Freedom House recorded the 13th consecutive decline in ‘global freedom’, otherwise described as an ‘unfolding third wave of autocratization’. A notable factor has allegedly been the complacency of the international community, in particular the US, Russia, and China. Yet, also the EU is admonished, particularly since its new foreign policy instrument – the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument that was approved by the European Council in July 2020 – does not convincingly emphasize democracy.

These observations have led many – not just academia, but also advocacy groups and think tanks – to believe that liberal democracy is in jeopardy. Since these people often believe liberal democracy to be intrinsically good and post-ideological, they occasionally encourage the international community to step up and take responsibility and to rejuvenate liberal democracy. This would be even more important considering the impact of COVID-19 on the closing of democratic space.

However, here I ask whether ‘international democracy support’ is altogether desirable, and if so, whether this should include liberal democracy?

Most notably, such claim of ‘intrinsic goodness’ is strongly contested by some postdevelopment scholars, whom demand us to acknowledge that ‘a good life’ (or in this case democracy) is conditioned upon a multiplicity of meanings that are in many ways different from the West. For example, several African conceptions of what is ‘good’ for society – e.g. agaciro, ubuntu, maendeleo, ujamaa, or demokaraasi – emphasise community and unity rather than individualism. As such, African democracy is believed to be alien to Western liberalism and to be predicated on consensualism instead.

Additionally, postdevelopment scholars claim that Western intervention disenfranchises African agency itself. Indeed, it mischaracterizes local grassroots as organizations in need of help. It presumes that democratisation only develops with the help of international intervention, or that at the least such intervention is instrumental. Such presumption, it is argued, would induce more harm than good.

Then, ‘postdevelopment’ scholars have often noted the practice of Western development cooperation (in casu democracy support) to be illegitimate, obsolete and bankrupt. Therefore, rather than being rejuvenated, it must be abolished. In other words, seemingly these scholars conclude that the international community should mind its own business and let democracy abroad take care for itself.

However, I would rather nuance – if not argue against – such radical conclusion. Unfortunately, democracy is still in retreat in Africa. Unquestionably, there are powerful elites who invoke ‘authentic local democracy’ and ‘sovereignty’ as an argument against any form of foreign intervention, yet simultaneously quell any form of dissidence. Unquestionably, prospects of locally owned democratisation can become untenable without foreign help, as has already become particularly clear throughout the continent: whether it was Muammar Qadhafi’s help for Mandela’s struggle against apartheid in South-Africa, or the transnational mobilization that characterized the Arab Spring.

Therefore, rather than outright delegitimizing foreign intervention, the question becomes identifying the rules of engagement. How to make democracy support legitimate and desirable? How to square this with postdevelopmental thought?

A starting point would be to differentiate between what Ziai has termed the neo-populist and sceptical account of postdevelopment. The former – e.g. as expressed by Claude Ake – unequivocally rejects Western democracy support as an imperialist project and favours a return to localised alternatives instead. In doing so, it could be argued that it places those alternatives on a pedestal marked with a sign ‘do not touch’. It is believed this is the only way to preserve both non-Western imaginaries and peace. However, while such display certainly helps to conceive of alternative conceptions of democracy – including ways in which they are incompatible with the substance of EU democracy support in Africa – it could also be argued that it entraps them. Indeed, by fencing off those local conceptions it not only keeps the outside out, it also keeps the inside in. In the name of authenticity, it risks preventing authentic calls for change.

In contrast, the sceptical account seeks to establish ways in which the Western democracy support can live alongside and potentially interact with a multiplicity of local conceptions. Specifically, it is predicated on a Mouffean philosophy of ‘radical democracy’, which seeks to open up interaction through a ‘construction of “a people” around a [common] project which addresses the diverse forms of subordination around issues concerning exploitation, domination or discrimination. Put simply, this sceptical account makes possible to reimagine democracy support in terms of international ‘cooperation’ rather than ‘intervention’. Rather than claiming for democracy support to be abolished, it makes possible to reimagine the legitimacy, relevance and desirability of democracy support.

In that regard, for EU democracy support to remain desirable, it must be aimed at establishing a common project, not just liberal democracy as such. This first of all requires the consideration that in many African authoritarian countries a ‘counter democratic project’ among different grassroots is already under way. In order to understand and cooperate with what is at hand, the EU must deconstruct its own claims of what constitutes the ‘ethico-political’ conceptions of equality and liberty. After all, in order to see what alternatives are present, the EU must first ‘unsee’ itself. Simultaneously, the EU also has to consider that any such common project is always incomplete (e.g. there may be internal conflict or lack of resources). Indeed, such project is never fixed and there is always room to manoeuvre it in some direction.

In making such consideration, however, the EU must shift its emphasis on ‘democracy’ in democracy support to ‘support’. While the EU can help provide a platform through which contestants can interact, or propose some ideas for reform, the collective ‘other’ must always be allowed the driver seat in defining their own destiny. Finally, other than cooperating with, the EU must also adhere to what is at hand. The EU cannot distance itself from such project but must remain fundamentally committed, even if it does not agree with the outcome.

In sum, there remains a place for Western democracy support in Africa. This place, however, is difficult to accept: both for ardent supporters of liberal democracy as well as hard-line postdevelopmentalist. Building a bridge between both is not a ‘cosy’ exercise. It is unpleasant, discouraging and disruptive. After all, it requires to distance oneself both from the idea that liberal democracy is an ultimate good or that foreign intervention is undesirable. Yet, given enough goodwill, it is definitely not a bridge too far.

Nathan Vandeputte is PhD researcher & Teaching assistant at the Centre for EU Studies, Ghent University. He holds a Master’s degree in EU Studies (2016) and a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (2014).

 The aim of this blog series is to stimulate thinking about different imaginaries of ‘another Europe’ and alternative role(s) the EU could/should play, inspired by insights from postdevelopment thinkers. The blog series results from various exchanges and discussions between the contributors since early 2019.