Expert Commentary

Democracy in the developing world: The role of economic growth, social capital and crime

2013 study in American Economic Review on how perceptions of security in Latin American countries influence trust in democratic institutions.

Many societies that feature democratic forms of governance on the surface suffer from a variety of ills that can chip away at citizens’ trust in their current form of government. Corruption, crime and bribery plague much of the developing world. But precisely which factors are essential to the growth and continued prosperity of democratic institutions is a longstanding debate in the social sciences.

In 1959 sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, then at U.C. Berkeley, published findings indicating that increases in income per capita led to greater democracy. In essence, Lipset believed that democracy was achievable only once certain basic livelihood needs were met. (His findings remain sufficiently vital that they were revisited in a 2012 IMF working paper.)

In a 1997 article in World Politics, “Modernization: Theories and Facts,” Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi argued that democracy was simply the result of political actors pursuing their goals, and it could occur at any level of development. They asserted that if wealth allowed countries that transitioned into democracy to remain democratic, we would see more prosperous democratic countries and undemocratic ones. The authors supported this assertion with numbers:

The simple fact is that [between 1950 and 1990] or even before, no democracy ever fell, regardless of everything else, in a country with a per-capita income higher than that of Argentina in 1975: $6,055. Thirty-two democracies spent 736 years with incomes above $6,055 and not one collapsed, while 39 out of 69 democracies did fall in countries that were poorer.

The role of citizens’ faith in democratic institutions is central to a ground-breaking 1995 study in Eastern Economic Journal by John F. Helliwell of the University of British Columbia and Robert D. Putnam of Harvard. They link economic growth to higher levels of social capital — the presence of civil associations, the effectiveness of local agencies and citizens’ satisfaction with local governments. The notion of social capital has continued to receive attention from scholars, including Putnam in his 2000 book Bowling Alone.

A 2013 study by Luisa Blanco and Isabel Ruiz, “The Impact of Crime and Insecurity on Trust in Democracy and Institutions,” looks at how citizens’ perceptions of security and crime in Latin American countries — specifically Colombia — influence social capital and trust in systems of governance and civic affairs. The scholars, at Pepperdine University and Oxford, based their work on Vanderbilt University’s Latin America Public Opinion Project.

Looking at data from 2004 to 2010, the study measures how citizens’ satisfaction with and support for democracy are affected when they’re victims of crime, feel insecure, are asked for a bribe, and when there is armed conflict present. Of particular interest to the scholars is the case of Colombia: “One of the oldest democracies in the region, it also has a long history of violence and crime that surpasses that of any other country.” How has the country’s troubled history affected citizens’ satisfaction with, and support for democracy, as well as their trust in institutions?

The study’s main findings include:

  • Being a victim of a crime reduces citizens’ satisfaction with democracy but also increases support for democracy.
  • Demands for bribes and armed conflict reduced citizens’ satisfaction with democracy but didn’t affect their support for democracy.
  • Insecurity was the most consistent factor that undermined trust in political institutions, national government, the congress and the armed forces.
  • When citizens are victims of crime, feel insecure, are asked for a bribe, and when there is armed conflict present, the loss of trust is greater for institutions than for the criminal-justice system.
  • Requests for bribes had the greatest impact in reducing trust in almost all the institutions observed.

In comparing Colombia to the rest of Latin American nations, the results show that crime and insecurity have significant negative effects on social capital and thus trust in institutions. “Crime and violence are contributing factors to the deterioration of satisfaction with democracy, which is problematic for furthering democratic institutions in the country,” the authors state. “Recognizing the impact of crime on democracy and trust in institutions is important for Colombia.”

Overall, the results support the idea that economic growth is not just the function of trade or industrial policies. It is also an outgrowth of an environment that facilitates societal cooperation, and mutual trust between citizens and in institutions are key components of such an environment.

Related research: A 2013 paper in the European Journal of Political Economy, “The Impact of Crime on Trust in Institutions in Mexico,” also draws similar conclusions. A broad range of studies continue to be produced that focus specifically on “rule of law” and crime issues in the developing world and their effects on societies.

Keywords: crime

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