VoxEU Column Development Politics and economics

Recessions open a window of opportunity for democratic change in sub-Saharan Africa

According to theory, demands for democratic change are more likely to be realised during economic downturns, which lower the cost of overthrowing autocrats. This column presents empirical evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa suggesting that recessions may indeed open a window of opportunity for democratisation.

Four out of five Sub-Saharan African countries were autocracies in 1980, but twenty-five years later there were more democracies than autocracies. One cannot help wondering why some countries became democracies while others didn’t. What factors trigger democratic change?

According to the economic theory of political transitions as developed by Acemoglu and Robinson (2006), economic shocks are one important factor. They show that democratisation becomes more likely after transitory, negative shocks. These shocks give rise to a window of opportunity for citizens to contest power, as the cost of fighting ruling autocratic regimes is relatively low. When citizens reject policy changes that are easy to renege upon once the window of opportunity closes, autocratic regimes must make democratic concessions to avoid costly repression.

An interesting pattern emerges from the history of democratisation in Sub-Saharan Africa over the twenty-five year period from 1980 to 2004. Pick the five years with least and most rainfall for each Sub-Saharan African country. It turns out that the five years where rainfall was scarcest were followed by twice as many transitions to democracy as the five years with most rainfall. This is true whether one uses the democracy indicator of Persson and Tabellini (2003) or Przeworski et al. (2000). If there were no relationship between rainfall and democratisation, there would be a similar number of transitions to democracy following years of low and high rainfall. When the concept of democratic transition is widened to include democratic transitions according to Persson and Tabellini and to Przeworski et al., the five years where rainfall was scarcest were followed by almost three times as many transitions to democracy as the five years with most rainfall.

This historical pattern linking low rainfall and transitions to democracy suggests that democratic change is more likely during recessions as Sub-Saharan African economies are very dependent on rainfall. But does this conclusion hold up under the scrutiny of regression analysis?

It seems likely that – due to history and economic circumstances – some Sub-Saharan African countries are more likely to democratise than others, regardless of rainfall. A careful statistical analysis must account for this. It is also likely that there are democratisation trends affecting all of Sub-Saharan Africa. The disappearance of the Soviet Union, for example, triggered political changes all around the world. But the link between low rainfall and democratic change remains significant after accounting for these factors (Brückner and Ciccone 2008). To get an idea of the strength of this effect: during the “average drought” – rainfall levels 50% below average – the probability of a transition to democracy increases by around 6 percentage points.

How much more likely then is democratic change during an economic recession? In our sample, a 50% drop in rainfall reduces real income per capita by around 4% relative to trend. Putting the two pieces of the puzzle – the effect of low rainfall on income per capita and its effect on the probability of a transition from autocracy to democracy – together yields that a drought-driven recession that decreases income by 5% relative to trend raises the probability of democratisation by around 7 percentage points.

Thus, the recent history of Sub-Saharan Africa provides empirical support for the idea that economic recessions put autocratic regimes in a position where they have no choice but to make democratic concessions.


Acemoglu, D. and J. Robinson (2006). Economic Origins of Dictatorship and democracy. New York, Cambridge University Press.
Brückner, M. and A. Ciccone (2008). “Rain and the Democratic Window of Opportunity,” February, CEPR Discussion Paper 6691.
Persson, T. and G. Tabellini (2003). The Economic Effects of Constitutions. MIT Press, Cambridge.
Przeworski, A., M. Alvarez, J. Cheibub, and F. Limongi (2000). Democracy and Development: Political Institutions and the Well-Being of the World, 1950-1990.

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