Nepali Times
Here And There
The worst form of government, except all the others


There's an ill-wind blowing through the corridors of foreign policy in rich western countries. It has to do with democracy, and it illustrates the dilemma posed by the failures of development at every level in most nations in the world.

A Filipina-American academic, Amy Chua, has added great momentum to this trend with a book, World on Fire, in which she argues that liberal, free market and democracy systems imposed on largely feudal countries by well-meaning donors are actually dangerous and often lead to economic decline and war. She used the example of her native Philippines, where she was born into the wealthy but subtly discriminated against Chinese community. The People Power revolution that swept Coraz?n Aquino to power in the 1980s, Chua says, was universally welcomed and supported by Western capitals, most of all in Washington which was growing steadily more humiliated and impatient at the excesses of its former client, the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.

The huge crowds of middle class Manila residents that surrounded Marcos' palace, braving the tanks and riot police deployed to protect the autocrat, were rapturous when Aquino won the day. "Our Cory" they called her, making a play on words with her first name, which is Spanish for "heart". Over time, the "heart" of the middle classes, Chua explains, was somewhat of a disaster for the Philippines-a nation that had never quite recovered from centuries of colonial rule by Spain and the United States. She also relates how the market economy imposed as part of the democracy system empowered just a tiny sliver of Philippine society: her own Chinese community, and how that led to flaring resentments and anger by other citizens.

Chua says democracy also ripped open ancient ethnic and religious divides in her native land, between Filipinos and the Chinese community, between Christians and Muslims, between settled citizens and the indigenous tribes of the jungle. Political parties played divide and rule, local identity mattered more than national and armed gangs mutated into liberation armies. The state of the Philippines today is testimony to the abject failure of western-style democracy in a politically primitive land.

This book is causing great excitement, along with many others like it, among foreign policy makers, senior commentators and aid bureaucrats in America and Europe. In a way, I wonder if it isn't music to the ears of such people. Much was made in the 1990s of the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets everywhere. At one point, we were informed in breathless tones, only a few countries in Africa, China and Indonesia were still authoritarian states. Each new little colonial remnant that elected a long-suffering opposition leader as Prime Minister was hailed as "another triumph for democracy" by the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Never mind that even the most well meaning dissident turned leader faced vast economic, ethnic and public health problems that would stymie the wealthiest of societies.

As Issac Newton knew, actions produce reactions and it became clear after Pervez Musharraf ended democracy in Pakistan in 1999 that the liberals in the West were changing their tune. In fact, so many of the "new democracies"-Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Argentina-were going sour, and the phrase of the moment became "I told you so" from those, like Chua, who argue that countries that aren't rich and well developed aren't ready for democracy. Or free market economics. I'm starting to hear people talk that way here in Nepal, amid the endless debate about the king's move of 4 October. "An unfortunate necessity" seemed to be the foreign view of the sacking of Sher Bahadur Deuba back then. Even now as autocratic smoke signals occasionally billow from the new corridors of power in Kathmandu, the murmur among aid donors and foreign political observers of Nepal is "pragmatism".

Whether Amy Chua's essay was intended to change the philosophy of Western engagement with the developing world is questionable. Everything she says about democracy in the Philippines is true. But one question remains there, and here, and that is: "What is the alternative to democracy"?

I'm pretty sure the answer is "nothing". Or at least "nothing that works any better". The sooner we realise that here in Nepal, the better.

World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability
by Amy Chua
256 pages

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)