This is not a travel advice column. In development economics, “Getting to Denmark” is a term used to describe the problem of creating effective political, economic and social institutions in developing countries. The expression flows from the work of social scientists Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock who question: How did Denmark get to be Denmark? That is, how can a developing country become democratic, prosperous, inclusive, stable, peaceful, law-abiding, well governed, and relatively free of corruption?
How can Haiti, Afghanistan, Cuba, Somalia, and many others be transformed into Denmark-like polities? Some answers, explored by Francis Fukuyama in “The Origins of Political Order,” begin with the premise that poor countries are not poor because they lack resources; they are poor because they lack effective political institutions.
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Just as importantly, the presence in a country of some democratic institutions reveals very little about how well or badly those institutions function. Often, developing countries fall into a condition where their governing institutions are neither fully authoritarian nor meaningfully democratic.
Institutions shape human interactions. Institutions define the rules of the game in a society and limit our freedom of choice. As such, we are naturally inclined to reject institutions unless we are convinced that they will serve to improve our wellbeing. In developing countries, where political institutions are not inclusive and prone to corruption, the wellbeing case is unconvincing for most of the population.
From the perspective of institutional development, the most intractable problem is that, whereas the end of authoritarian rule may happen quickly, effective democratic institutions develop slowly over time. That is, transitions to democratic governance will not be immediately successful. Regime change cannot be successful without a long, costly, and difficult process of institution building. This is a lesson not often understood by policymakers.
Getting to Denmark requires much more than a majority of votes in an election. It requires a complex set of institutions that Condoleezza Rice aptly describes as the scaffolding of democracy. A liberal democracy requires balance between executive, legislative, and judicial forces; between centralized and regional authorities and their respective responsibilities; between civilian and military powers; between individual and collective rights; and between the state and society. No wonder democracies are always flawed at their inception. Denmark is a long way off if the starting point is Haiti, Somalia, or Cuba.
The good news is that institutional development is not hermetically sealed in historical determinism. Societies are not permanently trapped by their historical past. Yet, societies are not free to simply remake themselves any given day disregarding their history. The problem of “Getting to Denmark” is, above all, a problem of finding a way to make inclusive institutions work.
One problem noted by social scientists is that of traditionalist societies that are fiercely resistant to any challenges to the dominant ideas of the society; ideas which are often invested with great political or religious passion. Often these states have highly centralized authorities and unorganized social actors outside the state apparatus, e.g., Iran, North Korea, Cuba.
Another challenge is present in societies characterized by some form of charismatic authority. The term originates from the Greek word charisma or “touched by God.” This etymology points to the enormous challenge of transferring authority from a leader “touched by God” to impersonal institutions.
In these societies there is usually a dramatic incoherence between the existing institutions of the country and the needs of the society. Getting to Denmark requires a mental transition from a creed that the ruler is sovereign to a conviction that the rule of law is sovereign.
As individuals we construct models of reality. Once adopted, our mental models of reality are hard to change even when we are confronted with evidence that our models are not producing the desired results. This helps explain the acquiescent attitudes observed in countries were communism took hold. In Cuba, for example, if economic development was to take place miraculously under the present repressive regime, such economic gains would not destabilize the political system nor put much pressure on it to democratize.
For Cubans, without the scaffolding of democracy, the only way of getting to Denmark is to travel there.