Towards another resource curse? Remittances and support for democracy in Africa

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Remittance recipients whose priority is the socioeconomic improvements of their lives were found to be less engaged with democratic processes.

Much has been written about the impact of remittance inflows on economic and social outcomes, including economic development, inequality and poverty. But little is known about the effect they have on the attitude of remittance recipients to democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have recorded substantial increases in inflows of money from other countries. These include official aid and foreign direct investment. Remittances now exceed official aid in many. They also include remittances from relatives who have left their home country and resettled elsewhere.

A recent study finds that remittances have a different impact when it comes to support for democracy. Although similar studies have been done in Mexico, this is the first to use the priorities of citizens as the basis for studying the relationship between remittances and political engagement in sub-Saharan Africa.

The study relied on the Afrobarometer data. This contains a series of national surveys on the attitudes of citizens towards democracy, market, civil society and other aspects of development. The surveys are available for 36 sub-Saharan African countries.

Positive and negative effects

There is a wide body of literature on the impact of remittances on poverty alleviation and reduction of income inequality. These cash transfers can also help recipients survive periods when they have shortfalls in their other incomes. Remittances may under some circumstances also contribute to economic growth.

They have negative effects too. Remittances have been found to have a negative effect on the quality of institutions. This is because remittances can be seen as substitutes to government spending on public services. They do this by enabling recipients to buy services they would otherwise be entitled to demand from the state.

When remittance recipients buy pubic services such as education or health from the private sector, for example, this often leads to a decline in government effectiveness and accountability. It may also result in an increase in corruption.

Impact depends on where priorities lie

The impact depends on the priorities remittance recipients have chosen. Recipients who have chosen rights and freedom as their priority were found to be as supportive of democracy as much as non-recipients. But recipients who rank higher improvements in their standard of living were found to be less engaged with democratic processes.

The study’s findings strike at the core of democratisation theories which have singled the growth of middle income earners as one of the driving forces for democracy.

The umbilical cord between remittances and democratic processes is the provision of public goods, a role fulfilled by the state. Public goods include public services such as health, education and roads.

The incentive therefore for supporting democracy depends, among other factors, on whether the priority chosen by remittance recipients is a good that can be exclusively provided by the state. But it also depends on whether the state is willing and able to provide such a public good.

Remittances enable recipients to buy public services. This means they no longer have an incentive to hold government accountable for providing, or improving the quality of, pubic services.

Many citizens in sub-Saharan Africa rely on remittances from another country. Reuers/Omar Faruk

The effect of remittances on democracy

Recent studies have also explored the effects of these inflows on the behaviour and attitude of citizens to politics. Migrant remittances have the potential to lower political participation by recipients.

Yet little is known about the effects of receiving remittances on the legitimacy of democracy in Africa, a region where democracy is a relatively new concept. Legitimacy of democracy is defined as the degree of endorsement and support for democracy by the citizens.

Democracy has been posited as a universal value and then associated with many desirable features, among them development and social welfare. This has raised the question why some countries are democratic while others are not. Political scientists argue that the legitimacy of democracy is an important determinant of the level of democracy supplied in a nation.

Following this line, several researchers have done valuable analyses to determine the most prominent socioeconomic characteristics that may explain the degree of support for democracy of citizens.

Other researchers have explored the link between the level of educationand democracy. They tested to what extent the different levels of education may increase the likelihood that citizens support democracy.

The findings of the study on the impact of remittances on attitudes to democracy point to the risk of remittances hindering the development of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. A lot depends on whether the balance of Africa’s population tilts more towards individuals who are more concerned about improving their standard of living than rights and freedom.

Disclosure statement

Maty Konte works for United-Nations University. She is affiliated with United-Nations University (UNU-MERIT).

The Conversation is funded bythe National Research Foundation, the Knight Foundation and Barclays Africa. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a Strategic Partner.

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