Dreams die hard. I was on the road for much of last fall, talking about my new book – which promotes (as I put it in a recent piece in foreignpolicy.com), the virtues of modesty in our approach to democratic development. While my message is a sober one, my aim is not to foster pessimism but rather to highlight pragmatic ways forward.

Yet, repeatedly, I come up against critics who bewail my seeming lack of ambition. “Why”, they ask, “do you sell short the possibilities of transformation? Isn’t what we need bold, decisive, ethical leadership which cuts through the messiness of present predicaments?  Where governance is weak, bold leaders can and should make it strong – rapidly and systematically!”.

By now, there is plenty of scholarship that makes the case that changes in governance cannot be willed into being – but rather that ‘good governance’ is the cumulative consequence of a long, slow incremental process. Nobel-prize-winner Douglass North and colleagues have clarified conceptually how personalized bargains between contending elites can provide platforms for both stability and (perhaps) the slow evolution of formal rules of the game. Francis Fukuyama masterfully documents, over two volumes, the deep historical roots of the rule of law, and of the difficult challenges posed by democratization in settings where state capabilities remain weak.

For many, though, conceptual and historical perspectives remain unpersuasive. “We need change”, they insist. “Therefore good leaders should provide it.”

One way or another damage is being done. If what I argue in Working with the Grain is wrong, then my incrementalist approach is giving comfort to mediocrity (and, sometimes, venality) when boldness and excellence are called for. But if the critics are wrong, then it is their seemingly visionary argumentation that is doing damage – holding up the impossible as a standard, and thereby fuelling the inevitable disillusion and despair that comes in the wake of failure.

To try and cut through these contending arguments, I have turned to some facts. Subsequent to the exuberant phase of democratization of the early 1990s, many democracies (both new and more longstanding) have made major economic, social and political gains. But what has driven these gains? Is it continuing governance transformation, driven by sustained, bold leadership? Or is it a messier process —  ‘muddling through’, but nonetheless, on balance, successful?

One way to get a better sense of these achievements and their drivers is to review cross-country evidence. I focus here on progress across two dimensions – trends in economic performance and trends in institutional quality.  The attached file of MAJOR GOVERNANCE IMPROVERS, 1998 to 2013 summarizes the observed patterns for the full set of 65 countries that are on a democratic pathway, have populations in excess of 1 million, and whose per capita incomes as of 2000 were below $10,000. The group divides more-or-less evenly between 35 countries for which the recent period has been one of continuing (albeit often uneven) economic progress, and 30 countries that have experienced limited, if any, gains on either the institutional or economic front.

I’ll post a follow-up piece in the next few days which will explore the patterns in some depth. (To be sure to get the follow-up, feel free, of course, to sign up to my blog while you’re on the site……). But for now here are is the headline conclusion:

  • European Union accession countries aside, only two countries – Georgia and Liberia – experienced continuing transformational gains in governance subsequent to their initial democratizing moment.

Only two countries…(!!!) ..…Georgia and Liberia…(!!!)…. Hardly a powerful platform for transformational claims!!!

Given these realities, surely we need to set aside our transformational fantasies and base our actions and advocacy not on our dreams and desires, but on the track record of what is feasible. But this need not mean setting our sights low. Over time, the cumulative consequences that follow from the accumulation of many seemingly small victories can be profound. But focusing on incremental gains calls for a different mindset than has prevailed in the recent past – it calls for us to set aside our infatuation with instant gratification and commit to sustained effort for the long haul. Development, including in its governance dimensions, is not a sprint, but a marathon.

This article is published in collaboration with The World Bank’s People, Spaces and Deliberation Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Brian Levy teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, USA, and the University of Cape Town.

Image: A view shows buildings in France. REUTERS.