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Education and support for Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa:
Testing mechanisms of influence

Geoffrey Evans and Pauline Rose
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Paper to be presented at "The Micro-Foundations of Mass Politics in Africa", Michigan State University, East Lansing, May 12-13, 2007

SARPN acknowledges Afrobarometer as a source of this document:
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The debate over the ‘social requisites of democracy’, to use Lipset’s (1959) iconic phrase, has been central to discussions of democratization at both macro- and micro-levels for half a century. Yet the role of education as a social requisite remains unresolved. At the macro-level it appears that level of education and democracy are positively related, but it is not yet established whether this relationship is independent of the effects of economic development. Even in the most recent empirical disputes, some authors claim the impact of education ondemocracy is independent and important (Glaeser et al. 2005) while others say that it can be explained by economic factors such as increases in GDP and equality (Boix and Stokes 2003), that education is significant but not as important as economic factors (Barro 1999; Przeworski et al. 2000) or even that neither economic nor educational factors are causally related to the presence of democracy (Acemoglu et al. 2006). At the micro-level, in contrast, though there have been many theoretical accounts of the role of modernization on democratic values there has been far less emphasis on an empirical analysis of the relative importance of education versus other economic and social factors in developing societies. Some of the earlier literature on modernization certainly attributed an important role to education: It was a key factor in Lipset’s (1959) thesis of the social pre-requisites of democracy, while Almond and Verba (1963) treated education as a major source of civic attitudes and support for democracy.1 Nonetheless, discussions of modernization including those by Lipset himself (1959; 1994), typically bundle together a range of influences – urbanization, industrialization, the growth of the middle class, education, affluence etc - without attributing any causal priority amongst them: “industrialization, urbanization, wealth and education are so closely interrelated to form one common factor” (Lipset 1959: 80). So although influential proponents of modernization theory have argued that education is important in promoting democratic values and thus facilitating the adoption and preservation of democratic practices in developing societies the empirical evidence for its distinctive causal role is surprisingly thin.

In this paper our central focus is, precisely, the importance of education for democratic attitudes and how this can be explained. Our thesis is that by improving cognitive and communicative skills education can increase civic involvement and support for democratic practices in developing societies to a greater degree than any other social structural factor. To test this idea so we examine the importance of education compared with occupation, economic resources, urbanization and, as a possible counter influence, certain religious orientations. In this sense we return to the tradition in the study of democratization that placed considerable emphasis on education as a facilitator of mass support for democracy (see especially Inkeles 1983), but bring to bear detailed evidence on these effects and how they are explained.

Part of our motivation in developing and evaluating this thesis derives from our belief that schooling is an area where interventions by international agencies can and have been made and it is important therefore to clarify its putative role in the process of mass endorsement of democratic procedures. Though it has been assumed that: ‘Broad and equitable access to education is thus essential for sustained progress toward democracy, civic participation, and better governance (World Bank, 2001: 8), as yet there has been little systematic research evidence to support such claims in developing country contexts, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (Hannum and Buchmann, 2005).

In the rest of the paper we build upon the approach adopted in our study of support for democracy in Malawi (Evans and Rose, 2007), we expand the approach to include a comparative design using the recently conducted third round of the Afrobarometer survey which provides a broad range of sub-Saharan African countries with varying social and institutional legacies, including levels of educational provision. In many of these countries there have been long periods of one-party/man rule and where the introduction of democracy has in part at least been externally-driven, support for democracy is likely to have fragile foundations (Bratton and van de Walle, 1997). The context is thus one where there is considerable scope for increases in educational provision and such increases could make a difference to levels of mass support for democracy and in turn to the stability of such democracy. We proceed to estimate general patterns of educational influence on support for democracy and then estimate models that test competing arguments that explain these effects. To preview our conclusions, we demonstrate that education far outweighs all other ‘modernization’ influences on democratic attitudes. We also show that religion has little or no impact on such attitudes and thus confirm that, contrary to the belief of some commentators, Islam does not in this context provide a factor inhibiting the holding of pro-democratic attitudes.2 As with our previous work we find evidence of variations in the impact of primary and higher levels of education on different aspects of democratic support. In this paper, we further examine how education’s effects might be understood by identifying and testing potential mechanisms through which education might influence democratic support.

  1. Normative accounts have also emphasized the importance of education for democratic citizenship (Gutmann 1987; Kamens 1988).
  2. A separate question, which we are investigating in accompanying work, is whether being Islamic weakens the liberalizing influence of education.

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