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Fun With Graphs: Arab Democracy Edition

By Taylor Marvin

More on the idea that a threshold per capita income is a crucial factor in the success of young democracies.

Here’s a graph of GDI per capita PPP for select Arab countries, as well as the world average:

Source: World Bank

Source: World Bank

Libya is pushed so high above the average by its oil income, so its result of over $15,000 per capita isn’t indicative of what the actual average Libyan lives on. For the similar reasons I’ve omitted the truly oil rich Gulf States. Afghanistan is included as a comparison.

Now here’s the historical GNI per capita PPP from 6 countries that famously transitioned to democracy in the  last 30 years, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, Indonesia, Hungary, and Poland. Democratization is indicated by happy stars:

The average income of these countries during successful democratic transitions? Roughly $5,200. Here’s $5,200 superimposed over the earlier graph of Arab nations:

This isn’t a rigorous study- these countries are a fraction of those that have successfully democratized, and each’s experience with democratization reflects radically different social and political environments. But it is interesting. Jordan and Egypt are just on the average, while Tunisia and Algeria are significantly above it. However, Algeria’s an oil exporter- it’s GNI per capita isn’t indicative of the average Algerian’s income and countries rich in natural resources that require capital-intensive extraction are notoriously resistant to democracy. Other Arab states are far below this average level. Additionally, while democratic governments are rare below the $5,200 level they still exist- India and Indonesia notably. My point isn’t that democracy in most of the Arab world is impossible. It’s just that democracy in general is very difficult, and countries above the $5,200 level who aren’t resource rich tend to be liberal democracies, while those below tend not to. Most nations that do successfully democratize tend to share broad similarities, like this threshold per capita income and the presence of an educated middle class.  Free and fair elections in countries without these characteristics tend to not elect what we would recognize as liberal democratic governments but instead populist authoritarians. Successful liberal democracies don’t emerge because people suddenly decide to stand up for themselves, but rather because economic and social conditions reach a threshold that stable representative governments seem to require.

The number of democratic governments in the world hasn’t doubled in the last 40 years because people have become more understanding of each other, but because the world has become richer and more educated. This is encouraging- democratic government requires prosperity, and broadly socially distributed wealth is usually associated with democracies. This type of positive feedback loop is good news for the world’s future, but successful democratization’s historical correlation with middle national income levels doesn’t bode well for immediate widespread Arab democracy.

This last month’s events in the Arab world are amazing. But establishing democratic governments, even when spurred by popular uprising, in countries without a history of democracy is difficult, and most young democracies fail, often violently. Income isn’t the sole determinant of whether democracies succeed or fail; local culture and politics are hugely important. Similarly, Egypt in 2011 isn’t Argentina in 1983 or Poland in 1989- these situations are much more different than what they have in common. But the history of successful democratic revolutions suggests that national per capita income does play an important role in whether liberal democracies do emerge from popular protest. That said the protests in the Middle East are undeniably a good thing, and a triumph of personal expression and defiance against awful rulers. Best of luck to Arab protestors- they’re on the right side of history, but history might not be with them.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. These articles are fantastic; the information you show us is interesting for everybody and is really good written. It’s just great!

    July 26, 2011

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