Democracy Lab

The Odds are Good for Egypt

Run the numbers, and you’ll see that Egypt’s coup may be just what the country needed.

The recent ouster of President Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military cast a dark shadow on Egypt's fledgling democracy. The president was displaced on July 3, just days after he failed to satisfy an ultimatum put forth by the country's top generals. The interim president Adly Mansour, appointed by the leaders of the military, has already blunted some of the damage and put forth an ambitious timetable to return the country to democracy. 

Egypt's political crisis has been interpreted in two sharply conflicting ways. Opponents of the coup lament the irreparable damage it does to Egyptian democracy. Not only has the constitution been suspended as a result of military intervention, triggering a crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Egypt's first freely and fairly elected leader has been toppled, setting a perilous precedent and unleashing violence that threatens to derail the return of elected rule.

The coup's supporters, by contrast, argue that it will help set the stage for a stronger democratic future by offsetting illiberal aspects of the constitution such as the exclusion of secular groups from power and restrictions on free expression. Indeed, they point to the fact that the new transition plan puts Egypt on a fast track to new elections. 

These conflicting interpretations are stark: Democracy is rarely cultivated in a Petri dish overnight, but it is also rarely doomed once an experiment in self-rule has begun. History instead suggests that new democracies often muddle through, meandering fitfully to a stable democratic future. Therefore, while democracy in Egypt has suffered an unfortunate short-term setback, it is not destined to fail. 

Egypt's circumstances are not unique. Between 1875 and 2004, there have been 117 transitions to democracy across the world based on the conventional definition of procedural democracy: (1) the chief executive is elected; (2) the legislature is elected; (3) there is more than one political party; and (4) an incumbent has lost power and transferred it peacefully to a new leader. Of these transitions, 25 were quickly overturned by military coups in a manner similar to Egypt. In these instances, the military frequently intervenes to rectify what it perceives to be a critical flaw in the democratic design and sets the stage for a return to a more sustainable democracy. 

The good news for Egypt is that some of these stillborn transitions have given way to quick returns to elected rule. In 9 of 25 cases, there was a return to democracy within five years. Examples include Peru, Argentina, Burundi, and Guinea Bissau. In these cases, military leaders have held free and fair elections quickly after overthrowing civilian governments, effectively "resetting" democracy in a manner more favorable to the military or civil society groups allied with them. Some of these "second-chance" democracies experienced further backsliding (e.g., Argentina) before eventually consolidating and shedding the most extreme legacies of politicized constitutional engineering. 

Even the more delayed returns to elected rule give reason for hope. In 20 of the 25 cases of stillborn transition (including the nine cases mentioned above), there was a return to democracy within 15 years. These include Ghana, Pakistan, and Thailand. Although democracy is far from perfect in these countries, it has survived setbacks similar to those in Egypt today. 

The bad news is that a few stillborn transitions have instead yielded a return to prolonged dictatorship. In five cases, democracy was either dramatically delayed (Nigeria and South Korea) or permanently shelved (Burma, Sudan, and Uganda). And in these cases, civil strife, violence and repression have been ubiquitous features of the political landscape. Hard-line elements within the military pushed for a greater focus on domestic security. If elections are held at all, it is under conditions of severely circumscribed competition that excluded popular groups and in which pro-military incumbents are all but guaranteed victory. 

This begs the question about what determines whether countries are able to recover after a coup that resets democracy. A basic data analysis reveals that there are several "structural" factors that, while far from deterministic, play an important role in whether a stillborn transition segues into a quick return to democracy or instead represents a renewed lapse into dictatorship. Countries located in regions with a greater number of neighbors that are democratic are more likely to return to democracy at a quicker pace after a coup, as are those countries with open economies.

In other words, reclusive states in bad neighborhoods face steep obstacles in returning to elected government. Similarly, very poor countries are less likely to return to democracy, as are those that have a legacy of a large repressive apparatus under dictatorship. States with a history of financing large militaries and police forces employed to maintain order and quash dissent, rather than invest in education and infrastructure, are less likely to witness protest movements or the rise of a middle class that can help push for a return to democracy.

Political factors also play an important role in the return to democracy after a stillborn transition. These factors are ultimately the result of deliberate choices made by incumbents and the opposition and therefore suggest that the key players in Egypt are not simply passive victims of the structural factors impinging upon their ongoing political development. These include both popular mobilization associated with a revolution that ousts an authoritarian regime, and constitutional design to create a blueprint to new, democratic institutions. 

If the initial foray into democracy was the result of a revolution that brought down a long-lived authoritarian regime, then mobilized popular groups are much less likely to melt back into political irrelevance. The classic example is France. And if the initial democratic experiment was guided by a constitution blatantly engineered by outgoing autocrats, then elites are more likely to countenance a return to elected government after a coup that resets the political game. This has happened in the recent history of Pakistan and Nigeria. Both of these factors help explain why governments return more quickly to elected rule after a "reset" coup. 

Besides the obvious downside of being in a region suffused with dictatorships, several important factors for Egypt are rather propitious: it has a higher income per capita than most countries that quickly return to democracy after "reset" coups, and it has a relatively open, albeit declining, economy. 

On the political side, the news is mixed. The revolution that overthrew Mubarak emboldened civil society, which, as witnessed by the protests that catalyzed Morsy's overthrow, will not easily fold in the face of continued repression or trumped-up "emergency rule." As in other historical cases, this bodes well for the re-establishment of elected government, as witnessed by the military's unwillingness to rule directly as it did immediately after Mubarak's overthrow.

Regarding constitutional design, the Muslim Brotherhood's constitutions surely contributed to democracy's false start. It rammed through a document with little support outside of hardcore Islamists and in the process threatened powerful interests. This set the stage for the current turmoil. 

This time the military will most likely impose a more secular constitution beforehand with more reliable limits on executive authority. As in other cases of more heavy-handed constitutional engineering such as Chile or Turkey, this should bolster the prospects that democracy -- though a far less populist version -- will endure this time around.



Bridging the Gender Gap

How big data can improve the lives of a billion women and girls.

In the field of development, there are too many reports to count, but last month's U.N. report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda stands out because it contains a big idea that could change the future for billions of people. It says that investments in the world's poorest people won't generate the biggest possible return until we learn how to make sure women and girls benefit from them equally.

Investing in women and girls should justify itself. They make up half the population (and the majority of the poor), yet they've been neglected by the development community. Moreover, advocates and experts have known for years that when women and girls have the power to make basic household decisions, they prioritize education, food, and health care -- the stuff of broad-based economic and social development. In short, when we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everybody else.

Unfortunately, this fact hasn't always influenced the official development agenda. Take the example of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have served as a charter for the development field since the U.N. adopted them in 2000.

The MDGs have been a big success because they narrow down a potentially endless list of priorities to eight discreet goals. My husband calls the MDGs the "world's report card." Since leaders know they're being "graded" on specific goals and targets (such as the child mortality rate), they use their resources more strategically. That's why the world has made impressive progress on many of the goals, starting with the first one (cutting global poverty in half), which was achieved five years early.

The negative corollary to the success of the MDGs is that the priorities not enshrined in the world's report card tend to get less attention. In some ways, that's what happened to women and girls. One of the current goals is specifically devoted to gender equity, but it includes only one target: to eliminate gender disparities in education. That's an important work in progress, but it's just one among many gender-related issues that matter in development.

Which brings us back to the U.N. panel's recommendations for what should replace the MDGs when they lapse in 2015. The proposed gender equity goal for post-2015 is much stronger than its predecessor. It includes targets for limiting gender-based violence and child marriage and for promoting property rights for women. It's tricky to strike the right balance between the concrete specificity needed to make the goals actionable and the complex reality of women's lives. (Indeed, this is a defining challenge across the development field.) The list of proposed targets in the report is a promising start.

However, the real breakthrough is the panel's recommendation that data on every single goal and target be broken out by gender (and also by other key categories like income or where people live). Disaggregating the data will tell us whether the progress we're making applies to women and men equally (or to slum dwellers and rural villagers equally, for example). This has not always been the case, and our inability to disaggregate this data leads to solutions biased toward men.

You can see the gender bias inherent in development by looking closely at the recent history of agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. Women do a majority of the farm work in that part of the world, but many agricultural programs are instead designed to reach the minority of male farmers. For example, the government employees who train farmers tend to be men who in some cases are not allowed to train women and in many cases simply prefer working with men. As a result, women farmers are significantly less productive than their male counterparts.

Since women are far more likely to be in charge of feeding their families, the fact that they grow less food has disastrous consequences for children across the continent -- and for development at large. If we disaggregate the data, however, we will know immediately whether particular groups are being left out. And then in-country programs can be redesigned to address the problem.

We know from experience that a rising tide in development does not necessarily lift all boats. By the same token, progress toward the MDGs does not necessarily include all people. It's possible to reduce poverty for certain types of people but not for other types. Disaggregation will go a long way toward repairing this shortcoming in the next set of global goals.

The U.N. panel points out one giant barrier to reaping the rewards of disaggregation: As it stands right now, the world doesn't have the ability to gather the necessary data or analyze it properly. Some countries simply don't collect enough data, or it's not accurate. Other countries with better data don't track it in ways that make country to country comparisons possible, which makes the data difficult to use. The report calls for a "data revolution" that takes advantage of the new digital tools at our disposal. It will take significant investment over the next two years to ensure that governments in developing countries have the capability to gather and analyze data when the new generation of MDGs comes into effect in 2015.

I know that disaggregating data sounds mundane. Stats aren't sexy, even if you try to dress them up with a slogan like "big data revolution." However, as much as development depends on very human motivations like a mother's desire to give her child a better life, it also relies on the sound technical basis of smart incentive structures, efficient logistics, and other details. The MDGs are the perfect example of this yin and yang. They are based on ambitious principles about the quality of life that the poorest deserve, but they work because of management truisms like "what gets measured gets done."

I recently traveled to Senegal, to follow up on the progress that country is making in delivering contraceptives to the women who want them. At a health clinic in Dakar, I met Monique, a 23-year-old woman who uses a contraceptive implant and was seeing a health worker for her six-month checkup. I asked her why she started using a contraceptive, and she said that she sees women in her community struggling to take care of unhealthy children who were born one right after the other. She doesn't want to go through that, she said.

Behind Monique's drive to change the future for her family, however, is a family planning infrastructure in Senegal that is now well-funded and soundly managed, not to mention based on real-time data about how many of which types of contraceptives are in stock at various health clinics. This system educates women about their options, makes sure the contraceptives they prefer are always available, and guarantees that they get excellent follow-up care.

As we've seen, the mere fact that women and girls can drive development isn't enough. What is needed is a system designed to put them in the driver's seat. And one linchpin of that system is data we can use to monitor, evaluate, and constantly improve development programs.

There are still two years before the next-generation MDGs are signed, sealed, and delivered. I hope that when they are, the theory underlying the U.N. panel's report -- that women are not just a development constituency but a powerful source of development -- is still at the heart of the agenda. In the meantime, it is up to us to invest in the systems that can turn this theory into a reality. If we have both the will and the way to count women and girls, then we can count on them to help communities and societies around the world flourish.