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Launch of the 2002 United Nations Development Program

UNDP Human Development Report (onshi/Flickr)

UNDP Human Development Report (onshi/Flickr)

I call this a traditional question because it has been around in the discussions about democracy and economics for quite some time. The Asian economic miracle appeared to give a particular answer to that question. And the answer that it gave, based on the economic experiences and the political experiences as well particularly of Southeast and East Asia during the 1970s, 80s and good part of the 90s, seemed to suggest that the answer to the question was no, that political democracy was not particularly necessary for economic growth or for poverty removal.

Countries such as mine, India, had a particular problem in this regard. Because in some debates and discussions, India was often pointed to as the counter-example that exactly proved why you didn't need political democracy if you were really interested in having high growth or reducing poverty, as compared for example, to Indonesia, Thailand, Korea under dictatorship and so on.

And in some sense those who supported or were supporters of political democracy and the importance of political democracy, were in some senses at not just something of a disadvantage but even on quite a bit of a defensive stance in relation to that support and those positions.

I think that the events of the latter half of the 90s, going on into the current decade, have changed the questions around in somewhat dramatic ways as we know. Southeast and East Asia is no longer the economic miracle that it appeared to be at that time. If anything has been striking about the consequences of the economic crisis following after 1997, one of them has been the extent to which progress made on poverty reduction and even eradication in countries such as Indonesia, how rapidly and dramatically they could be reversed.

In a sense, it's hard to think of the last 200 years, post-Industrial Revolution, where you would have seen such a dramatic reversal in such a short period of time. Poverty, once it is gone, is not supposed to come back in the ways in which it has tended to do. And it has thrown into question, obviously, the impact and the nature of the current processes of economic globalization and their implications, both in terms of economic democracy, economic inclusion, the removal of poverty and also their implications for politics and political processes.

In some senses one could say that the question of the relationship between political democracy and economic growth and poverty removal has turned around and become a somewhat different question. And the question that I think many of us are grappling with today, in the Asian context, is this: can the institutions of political democracy, as we normally have tended to understand them, manage the fallouts of economic globalization?

And those fallouts, now in our experience of the last 20 years, appear to have different dimensions. The fallouts are: volatility, that we all I think, understand well and certainly in this, the capital of global financial capital, we understand extremely well the meaning of volatility; insecurity of livelihoods - that you can be up one day and the bottom can drop off the next, if you are in a labor market that is increasingly informal and insecure; and a third, and crucial, fallout that in a country like India we are particularly having to address - the fallout of aspirations that are dramatically increased by the globalization of media and culture in the form that many in the society aspire to and know is probably unreachable within their lifetimes.

The fallout of those unreachable aspirations, combined with the volatility and the insecurity, I think, is posing entirely new sets of challenges for the institutions of political democracy as we are experiencing them in the region today.

I think countries like Indonesia and to a lesser extent, Thailand, post 1997 and 1998, showed us one kind of example, which was rather frightening and difficult to deal with. Indonesia, as we know, in the period prior to this, was hardly an example of democracy.

But Indonesia certainly had been held up as a significant and important example of poverty removal and eradication. But the volatility and the insecurity and the return of poverty that followed after 1997-1998, threw up processes of social fragmentation that were quite frightening in their effects and their implications.

It is in Indonesia that we first began seeing in the region such a dramatic increase in sectarian and intercommunity and inter-religious violence that we hadn't seen for a very long time, in fact. It is in Indonesia that we saw the incorporation of gender violence on a dramatic scale into these same forms of sectarian violence as they emerged, again in ways that we had not seen in the region before, on quite such an organized scale, for possibly a very long time-certainly not in my lifetime.