It probably won’t surprise you that there’s a positive relationship between political participation and social/economic development. In countries where people are doing better (living longer, attending more years of school, spending more money), they also vote, protest, and petition more.
I’ve illustrated that relationship with this graph. The United Nations Development Programme’s Index of Human Development is on the y-axis, and the percentage of the population that votes and says they join petitions, boycotts, or protests (averaged together) is on the x-axis. The graph only includes countries with a history of real elections, and it misses most poor countries, because they don’t participate in the World Values Survey. There were 62 countries in my sample, but I deleted some of their names to make the graph legible:
The correlation is compatible with several rival theories. Maybe participation helps with development, or maybe affluence gives people the luxury to participate. Or maybe there’s another underlying cause, such as trust, sociability, the quality of the media, or the size of the middle class. I’d like to believe that political participation is good for development (as Amartya Sen and others have argued), but I don’t have the data to prove that.
I can, however, note some interesting patterns.
1. There’s a cluster of former British colonies that chose to participate in the World Values Survey and that show similar results. These countries (near the bottom-left of the graph) under-perform economically considering the robustness of their civic participation. (Or they over-achieve as democracies, considering their poverty.) Within that group, however, there’s a correlation between democratic participation and social development. In the cases of Tanzania and India, I think we’re still seeing the legacy of centralized democratic socialism–which tolerated and even encouraged participation but monopolized economic power.
2. Singapore has achieved high social development with low civic engagement. It’s a rare enough case that no one should argue for the Singapore model. Several of the major new democracies in Eastern Europe and Latin American also have relatively low civic engagement, considering their level of social development, but they are not far from the norm.
3. The World Values survey asks people whether they take “local community action on issues like poverty, employment, housing, racial equality.” Answers to that question did not correlate at all with socio-economic development. Therefore, I dropped that indicator from the graph. However, it’s important to note that “local community action” is most common in the poorest countries (Bangladesh, Tanzania, and China). It is more common in the USA than in other developed democracies.