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Poverty, Poverty Measurement and Democracy in Southern Africa

Afrobarometer Briefing Paper No. 4


Posted with permission of Bob Mattes and Afrobarometer
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How does poverty shape the prospects for consolidating democratic government?

Political analysts have long believed that sustaining democratic government in a poor society is harder than in a relatively wealthy one.1 This is a sobering thought for all those committed to democracy in Africa.

Precisely why poverty undermines democracy, however, is much less clear. Perhaps poor people have far less time to devote to political participation. Or, given the imperative to satisfy basic survival, people may sacrifice "higher order" needs like self-government, freedom and equality. Or, poverty may inhibit modernization processes - like education, urbanization, or use of the mass media - that are commonly held to breed democratic value2

Finally, perhaps poorer societies are less able to distribute wealth equitably and thereby to facilitate compromise in clashes over resources.3 To explore the political dynamics of poverty, we use data from seven 1999-2000 Afrobarometer surveys in Southern Africa to develop an index of poverty and then test its impact on political attitudes and behaviours critical to democracy.

  1. The latest contribution to this venerable research tradition is Adam Przeworski, Michael Alvarez, Jose Antonio Cheibub, and Fernando Limongi, Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and Well-Being in the World, 1950-1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  2. For example, Ronald Inglehart and Wayne Baker, "Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values," American Sociological Review 65: February (2000): 19-51.
  3. Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization In the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991). pp. 59-72.

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