Why western donors love authoritarian leaders

In recent years, Rwanda and Ethiopia have been some of the largest recipients of aid money from the UK and US governments, as well as some of the West's leading philanthropies, including the Gates Foundation.

Abiy Ahmed Ali. Image credit Odaw via Wikimedia Commons.

“Rwanda has turned out to be an incredible partner,” the philanthropist Howard Buffett said at a World Economic Forum event in Kigali in 2016. “When we show up in this country, we know that we can do what we need to do, we know we can meet with who we need to meet with.” For a generation, British Prime Minister Theresa May said in August, her fellow citizens only thought of famine when they thought of Ethiopia. But now the country “is fast becoming an industrialised nation, creating a huge number of jobs and establishing itself as a global destination for investment.”

Western governments and philanthropists have matched their rhetoric with money. In recent years, Rwanda and Ethiopia have been some of the largest recipients of aid money from the UK and US governments, as well as some of the West’s leading philanthropies, including the Gates Foundation. To justify these lavish contributions, Western leaders have repeated versions of a story, that regimes in these countries are undergoing a state of transition, and that democratic governance will have to wait until they develop some more. But where does this story come from?

To state the obvious, Western governments have often contradicted their officially pro-democracy positions to back authoritarian regimes they considered useful. At the end of the colonial era, and the start of the Cold War, European and American leaders invoked a fear—real or imagined—of a world succumbing to communism to explain why they occasionally needed to cast aside principles in the realm of foreign policy. Democracy was nice, even ideal, but only if the “right conditions” were met, and the chosen leaders were inclined to uphold the Western-led international order. In the meantime, allied strong-men were a more than adequate substitute.

But as the Cold War gave way to a world where commerce was the organizing principle of the day, Western governments justified their alliances with authoritarians with new stories. To understand where those stories came from, it helps to look at China. As the journalist James Mann details in his 2007 book, The China Fantasy, under President Nixon, US leaders accepted China as a “card” to play against the Soviet Union, and gradually relaxed trade barriers to bring it more closely to the West. With the end of the Cold War, however, US leaders were wondering aloud if it was worth maintaining the special arrangement any longer.

In 1991, Bill Clinton ran for president arguing that any trade agreement with China had to be tied to “specific, tangible improvements in human rights,” in Mann’s words. The position was popular with voters, many of whom had watched Chinese troops murder the pro-democracy demonstrators of Tiananmen Square on TV a few years earlier. But as president, Clinton had to contend with American business leaders who saw his emphasis on human rights as a hindrance to their investments in a country that was just beginning a period of rapid growth.

In 1994, Clinton dropped the demand for tangible improvements from his trade proposal, replacing it with a package of human rights and pro-democracy gestures, like asking American businesses to draft codes of conduct before investing in China. To the surprise of almost no one, what Clinton called a “new human rights strategy” achieved nothing. But even a predictable failure needed a cover story. Near the end of his first term, Clinton adjusted his stance once more. Instead of combining free trade with some pro-democracy gestures, the US would merely allow free trade. Trade, and the growing economy that resulted, Clinton said, would force democratic change in China– somehow, someday, inevitably. Since political freedom would be a natural outcome of free trade, there was no reason to compel China to reform itself. Politics couldn’t shape China’s economy, in this telling. Its politics would be shaped by its economy.

Clinton’s story was irrational, a neoliberal myth that made a bald effort to give American companies an advantage abroad sound intellectually sophisticated and morally upright. But Clinton held to it through the end of his presidency. Campaigning for China to join the World Trade Organization, Clinton said membership was “likely to have a profound impact on human rights and political liberty.”

It did not. Since 2000, the Chinese government has not only become more authoritarian, it has become a model for authoritarian regimes around the world. And yet, the notion that free trade makes people free persists, not just in the global elite’s comments on China, but, more recently, in their comments on African regimes which aspire to fit the Chinese mold.

In an interview this November with Ezra Klein, of explainer site Vox, Bill Gates made a robust defense of authoritarian regimes in Africa. People intent on helping the world’s poor could not afford to work exclusively with democratic countries. “If you wait, usually you only get really good governance once a country is middle-income,” he said. And besides, there was no need to wait. As examples, he cited his two favorite countries in Africa. “When you have a leader like [Paul] Kagame in Rwanda who appoints good people and really cares about these results, it’s a fantastic thing,” he said. “Neither Ethiopia [nor] Rwanda checks every box of excellent government. It’s likely that those countries, until they get to middle-income status, won’t have all those characteristics.”

When Klein pressed Gates on the governance issue, Gates was more blunt. “It’s important to separate out the economic model of development from that political model,” he said. The most important changes governments can make were to adopt “market-based pricing” and “invest” in citizens by bolstering sectors like health and education, he added. Any government could make these changes, even an authoritarian one.

Just like Clinton a generation before, Gates is telling a story about the nature of a nation’s economy. An economy, he says, is shaped not by politics, but by policy. Politics is complicated, but policy is simple: either it’s good (market-based), or bad (something else). The economy’s possibilities are accordingly easy to comprehend as well: either it grows because of good policy, or it doesn’t grow, for the opposite reason. With a robust economy, the many wants of a people—even freedom itself—are possible. Without it, very little is.

But Gates’ telling also represents an evolution from Clinton’s original fable. Not only might economic growth lead to greater freedom, he says, authoritarian regimes could even be good for their nation’s economies—better, even, than democratic ones.

“There’s never been as strong a coupling between economic growth and democratic freedoms as we’d all like,” Gates said later, this time with a new example to make his point. “China grew dramatically faster than India did.” (India is a democracy.) “Now, India’s a very good story… But it’s not even close to what happened in China… The human freedom argument is going to have to be made on its own.”

Elsewhere in that interview, Gates ponders whether China, having now achieved middle-income status, will become more democratic. “Will their political model progress or not?” he asks rhetorically. “That’s a valid question.”

The economy comes first, though in Gates’ telling of the story, democracy is no longer inevitable.

Fortunately for their Western supporters, leaders in these countries are willing to maintain the democratic ritual. In August 2017, Kagame won a third term as president of Rwanda, in an election that observers from the East African Community called “really successful” and generally in line with international standards.

And yet there were numerous reasons to be suspicious. To begin with, Kagame won with 99 percent of the vote. Three opposing candidates had been disqualified before the election. When Frank Habineza, one of the two candidates allowed on the ballot, held rallies in the northern districts of Rwanda, Human Rights Watch reported that Kagame’s security forces went house-to-house intimidating voters into staying at home.

With the election over, Kagame has resumed his position on the world stage. Earlier this month, Kagame was rallying a crowd at the Global Citizen Festival in Johannesburg, a fundraiser for aid organizations on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. Kagame’s security forces have been caught assassinating Rwandan dissidents in South Africa since Kagame’s rise to power, but nothing so controversial came up in the president’s address.

“Tonight, I join you to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela,” he said to cheers. “He never gave up on Africa. He believed African children can achieve anything. It’s in our responsibility to continue building on Mandela’s legacy.”

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