Those of us in the US, and I'm pretty sure this is true in many other first world nations, are indirectly preached the gospel of democracy in school. It's pretty much implied that Democracy is the only successful government, and I admit when I think of first world countries I think of ones with democratic, or near-democratic, goverments and when I think of third world countries I think of many with dictators or other goverments.

However, I don't know that much about many of the countries out there, and of course the democratic ones are the ones I've been taught the most about so there is a selection bias.

Thus I'm wondering, can anyone point to examples of successful non-democratic countries? Places that compete with other 'first world' nations without a democracy, and if so which govermental system do they use?

I'm looking mostly at 'modern' countries, any goverment that existed during an era where a contemporary democracy also existed so that the two can be easily compared and contrasted; though any noteworthy ancient goverments you think are worth discussing can be brought up if you can come up with a way to compare them to a contemporary democracy.

By successful I generally mean anything country that would be considered "first World", by the modern meaning not the original definition of first world, or "developed". In particular, though, I'm interested in:

1) technology & education
2) Wealth & wealth disposition
3) Human rights and equality

Can anyone give examples of successful non-democracies?

  • 10
    China seems pretty succesful.
    – user1530
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 15:45
  • 17
    Many consider respect for human rights and equality an essential part of a democracy, so when you measure the success of non-democracies by their standard of human rights you are judging a fish by it's ability to climb a tree. I would argue that there are quite a lot of regimes in the world which consider their ability to suppress minorities as one of their greatest successes.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 16:04
  • 6
    The USSR's economy was only half as big as it was saying it was. I'm not sure who you're measuring it against, but it was competing with the USA, which was four times as productive. You can also compare East and West Germany specifically and East and West Europe more generally. The assertion that communist dictatorships were in any way competitive with capitalist democracies is ludicrous. 1930s Germany took the economy and focused it. In the short term, this allowed them to increase military production. In the longer term, this was unlikely to be sustainable.
    – Brythan
    Commented May 10, 2016 at 20:44
  • 6
    @Brythan let's compare it to democracies of the time. They went from hyperinflation to full employment in a very short amount of time. The US and the UK were barely limping after the stock market crashed while the germans were comparatively sprinting. Commented May 11, 2016 at 13:21
  • 8
    The question misses a very important point about democracy. Countries can do very well under benevolent dictatorships - in fact they can do much better than democracies because the dictator is usually smarter than a committee and doesn't have to deal with red tape to get things done. The problem is: what happens when the benevolent dictator dies? America has made progress under democracy for 250 years. England has made progress under parliament even longer. How long have nice dictatorships ever managed to avoid descent into oppression? Democracy provides stability as well as decency.
    – Readin
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 5:01

3 Answers 3


To answer your three points in sequence I will rely upon the Freedom House Index to measure both 'democracy' and human rights, the Human Development Index to measure 'Technology & education,' nominal GDP per capita for wealth, the Gini coefficient for wealth disposition and equality.

It is worth noting that petro-microstates (i.e. small countries that get a lot of money from oil wealth, like Brunei or the U.A.E.) have resources that skew the outcomes significantly. Basically, if billions of dollars of oil wealth flows into a country with a small population it can buy development and prosperity, even in the face of resistance from their social structure. Since 'be oil rich' isn't a viable prescription for most countries, tt is therefore worth showing where the top petro-state lies in each measure, and where the next highest non-petrostate lies in order to demonstrate the relationship between democracy and prosperity or 'success.'

In some cases, city-states also have advantages due to their size. When a city-state like Singapore is the most advanced, I will also include the most 'successful' nation-state.

Technology and Education

The most advanced state on the Human Development Index which is considered 'Not Free' by the 'Freedom in the World index' (i.e. 6-7) is Brunei, a petro-state at number 31. There are 6 petro-states with a very high human development index: Brunei, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait The highest ranked non-free, non-petrostate are Belarus and Russia tied at 50. Russia, in many ways is also a petro state, so Belarus is really it.


Using GDP per capita, the highest non-free country is Qatar at 3 or 4, depending on the measure you use. The highest non-free, non-petro state is Kazakhstan. Notably, Kazakhstan is actually below the global mean for nominal GDP per capita, meaning every single non-petro state, non-free country is below the global average.

Wealth Disposition & Equality

Using the GINI coefficient from the World Bank we can see that equality and disposition of income is more of a mixed bag. Belarus, a not free country, is the #4 most equal country (i.e. with the lowest GINI coefficient), but the other top 10 are all Democratic. South Africa, a full democracy, is also the least equal country.

Human Rights

For this, we'll have to split apart the Political Rights (democratic) from the Civil Liberties (human rights) in the 'Freedom in the World Index'. Not one country which has a 6 or 7 for Political Rights has above a 5 (out of 7) on Civil Liberties. There are 17 countries which have a 5, which is still a bad human rights record.

As a side note, Freedom House has been accused of having a 'house bias' in favor of U.S. allies, but since the conclusion of the Cold War, there is much less evidence of that effect, simply because it isn't clear who is and who isn't allies with the U.S., and in cases where it is clear the countries in question are either unambiguously free or not-free.


You have mostly been taught correctly. If an authoritarian country has oil—or hypothetically some other major source of resource wealth—it is possible to create good economic outcomes for your population. Other than that, however, non-free countries are essentially never in the top tier when it comes to prosperity and rights by any meaningful measure.

The only area where there is any sort of parity is in equality, and due to the relative poverty that non-free countries find themselves, being equally poor does not seem like much of an achievement.

  • 3
    You could also add GDP into the measurement, in which case China would clearly be an extremely successful country, much more successful than it's neighbor India which has a similar population. Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 16:08
  • @JonathanReezSupportsMonica Adding GDP without adjusting for size or population wouldn't be very useful. Larger nations would always have a larger GDP by virtue of having more people producing value. A nation 3 times as big as a city state could have every person half as successful economically and still have a higher GDP by virtue of numbers alone; but I'd still argue the smaller, more efficient, country is doing better economically.
    – dsollen
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 23:01
  • 2
    @dsollen sure, but China is a great example as there is a democratic country with the same population that is far less successful. And even with GDP per capita adjustment China is now more successful than many democracies. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 1:16
  • 1
    Why should Kazakhstan be non-petro state?
    – convert
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 14:22

Some examples:

  1. Singapore - It's arguable the country is still not really democratic; certainly during the key period when the most progress was made, it was less democratic than it is today.
  2. South Korea is similar.
  3. So is Taiwan (see above source).
  4. China is debatable. Current China is clearly not really democratic, but some would say China isn't a developed country yet.
  5. China (again) - China was an absolute monarchy for thousands of years. For long periods (e.g. during the Tang dynasty), it was also the most developed country on Earth.
  6. Japan became a world power under Emperor Meiji.
  7. The Soviet Union became one of the world's superpowers under a communist government.
  8. Germany was vanquished as a great power in WW1, but rose again under the Nazis (who weren't democratic).
  9. One can also argue for Italy under Mussolini in the period leading up to World War II.
  10. And similar for Spain, which underwent the Spanish miracle under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
  11. Brazil became a highly prosperous country under Emperor Pedro II.

I'm confident there are more examples, but I can't think of them offhand.


NO YOU WON'T find many relevant examples of countries "doing better" than democratic ones, if you really want to focus on points 2 and 3 of your question.

You judge countries by values that derive from similar ideas from which democracy arose in the first place. It's almost like asking if there are any non-democratic countries with more democracy; not gonna happen.

Think outside of the box, think what other countries value and then take that as a measurement

  • soo..can you provide any examples of these better countries, as originally asked?
    – dsollen
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 12:59
  • 2
    By the metric of furthering the interest of its people as single unit: China. Al the signs point to this nation dominating the globe in the coming years. They control much of manufacturing, resources (by having bought up almost the entirety of Africa) as well as untertaking projects on the scale of the "New Silk Road".
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 13:16
  • @hobbarnok Can you quote any numbers? China is growing fast, but they were so far behind the rest of the world 'catching up' hardly seems to prove anything. I'm also not convinced their keep this rate, the change to a 2 child policy recently likely will slow down their growth as more resources go towards raising children for example. If you can cite specific metrics and evidence of those metrics I'll consider the validity of the claim. Though I did pick the points I selected as metrics which decide rather I would want to live in the country, I wouldn't want to live in China...
    – dsollen
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 13:29
  • 1
    "Though I did pick the points I selected as metrics" yeah, and I pointed out that asking that is like wanting to know if 5 + 5 is 10
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 13:33

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