What was there first: the chicken or the egg? Haven’t we all asked this question at some point? We need the egg to get the chicken, but where does the egg come from? The other way around we have the same problem.
The same question arise when we talk about democracy. What was there first? Was there first a society, that had a civil elite demanding more rights of participation or was democracy there first and the people become involved only afterwards?
We will try to better understand this question by looking at an active comparison of two countries: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Federal Republic of Iraq. The countries are neighbours located in the Middle-East, united, as we shall see, by ancient historical common roots that intertwine up until our current time. They were proclaimed independent states after the First World War dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and efforts to unify the two States have been pursued over the last century.
However, the current situation in those two countries are markedly different, in fact, even though Iraq has a larger territory and greater natural and economic resources, it has been ravaged in recent years by cycles of warfare, a growing refugee crisis, crippling sectarianism, and the violent spread of the self-styled Islamic State extremist movement.
On the contrary, Jordan, without a big territory or many natural resources, has been recently characterized by a more stable economic and social growth granting its citizens a higher standard of living in comparison with its neighbouring countries.
Scholars of different fields disagree about the importance of certain factors for the development of a country. Geography, human capital and history as well as culture are some reasons mentioned, but also democracy is taken into consideration when regarding the successfull development of a country.
Jordan and Iraq, as already mentioned, share a lot of historic and geographic trademarks and also culturally the countries are close. On the contrary we see vast differences in terms of the political environment, one of the countries – Jordan – being hereditary monarchy with a high degree of centralization of power and the other one – Iraq – being a parliamentary democracy based on a constitution with liberal principles.
The book ‘The Good Society’, written by A. Draper and A. Ramsay, suggests four main indicators to characterize a society: physical well being, informed decision-making, safety and democracy.
We will focus on physical well being and informed decision making.
For physical well being we look at infant mortality rates because these show us whether a society is capable of protecting its weakest members. Low infant mortality rates mean that a country has a health care system able to provide the necessary means of safely delivering children.
When talking about informant decision-making we look at literacy rates, as the ability to read opens up many ways to participate in the political life of a country. Literacy rates also provide a first insight into a country’s educational system.
Starting with the Infant mortality rate we see that in Iraq it is more than double of the Jordanian one, 37.5 deaths/1000 live births compared to 14.2 deaths/1,000 live births in Jordan. In fact, Jordan is renowned for its high-quality health care services and is considered one of the major destinations for medical tourism in the Middle East and North Africa. The country has both a three time bigger physician density compared to Iraq (2.65 / 1,000 population compared to 0.85 / 1000) and a higher Hospital bed density (1.8 beds/1,000 population compared to the 1.3/1000).
However Iraq’s inferior healthcare is surely due to its turbulent recent history, especially owing to the 1991 Gulf War and more than 12 years of trade sanctions that have heavily damaged its infrastructures and health care system until today. We see this especially since before 1991 the country had a good sanitary infrastructure and safe water supply accessible to almost all people in urban areas and the majority residing in rural areas, granting to its people one of the highest standards of living in the region. Furthermore, the recent instability caused a drastic reduction of the proportion of GDP spent on health care, which, according to the latest statistics was only 3.40 % , almost half of the percentage spent by the Jordanian government (6.28 %).
The literacy rate for the Jordanian population is 95.4%, compared to Iraq’s 79%, with a much lower gender gap compared to Iraq: male: 97.7% to 85.7%, female: 92.9% to 73.7%,
Both of these indicators show a clear trend favouring Jordan. Let us look at the reasons for this:
Firstly, in the past few decades, Jordan’s history has been mostly stable, granting it a better opportunity to work improving the citizens’ lives and thus improving their capabilities.
Meanwhile, Iraq saw the rise and fall of a dictator, was the target of collective defense of the NATO forces in the Iraq War, and then was subject to a US invasion and exploitation of oil resources. Iraq had to therefore build itself back up after undergoing all of these events, which hindered its abilities to be a “good society”.
Moreover, it is evident that a lot of the turmoil that has occured in Iraq had come to be due to its geopolitical location. Iraq is situated in a region with plenty of oil resources, with neighboring countries (Iran and Kuwait) also enjoying the same oil resources and therefore all members of OPEC. This is in fact where a disagreement among the parties sparked Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In addition, Iraq’s oil resources made it easy for the US to take advantage of the situation to obtain some of those resources.
On the other hand, Jordan lacks natural resources of such value, which naturally makes it prone to confrontation.
When it comes to political life, Iraq, even though a democracy, is at a higher disadvantage due to its severe political fragmentation, while Jordan has a highly centralized government with large powers and possibilities to act. This difference becomes particularly evident since the early 21st Century, as Iraq is according to the constitution of 2003 a decentralized, federal state with very limited powers attributed to the national level.
This difference is already partly embedded in the composition of the population of the two countries. Iraq’s population is highly divided by large ethnic and religious minorities with Kurdistan having claims for autonomy in Northern Iraq. Differences amongst the Kurds, Shia and Sunni populations limit national authority and large powers are attributed to the federal entities.
Jordan, on the contrary, due to the smaller territory and population, but mainly due to lesser political fragmentation, is led by a stronger, centralized government with large powers of the entire nation.
Both countries face challenges regarding low voter turnouts in the national elections (both are located in the low 40%).
From the international perspective we can see that even though both countries are represented in almost entirely the same institutions and organizations, Iraq is still suffering the consequences to some decisions taken under Saddam Hussein’s rule.
If we now return to our key question regarding the need of a democracy for a country to develop better than another one. From this research we can conclude that the political environment alone – may it be democratic or monarchical – does not guarantee the better development of a country. As we see, the criteria for the ‘good society’ are represented stronger in a constitutional, highly centralized, monarchy with a royal family influencing all branches of government, when comparing it with a federal, democratic Republic.
We can further conclude that the different paths taken by those two countries must stem from their differences regarding for example history and political geography and that having some features in common does not guarantee a common development.
Taking into consideration that the Jordanian royal family is more and more pressured to open ways for constitutional reforms and limitations to monarchical powers, we may ask whether we need a democracy to develop a ‘good society’, or whether we need a ‘good society’ for the people to demand a democracy.
- ‘The Good Society’ by A. Draper and A. Ramsay
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