Democracy assistance should target transitional democracies, particularly strengthening representative institutions, a Washington meeting heard yesterday. “Don’t pull the rug” from emerging fragile democracies – especially in sub-Saharan Africa – while providing assistance to non-democracies lie Ethiopia, said Representative David Price (D-NC), co-chair of the House Democracy Assistance Commission (H-DAC).
Institutions, not individuals should be the focus as “overly personalized” diplomacy is politically risky, he told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Credibility is sacrificed if assistance appears to be partial to friends and allies and there is a case for engaging forces, like moderate Islamists, with whom the US has political differences, but whose positions when in power will be influenced by perceptions forged in opposition.
Promoting democracy is often misperceived as the preserve of either “bleeding heart liberals” or “neoconservatives”, said Representative David Dreier (R-CA), H-DAC’s other co-chair, when there is actually a robust bipartisan consensus on support for democracy assistance. The pro-democracy advocates prevailed in the debates and polemics around the founding and early years of the National Endowment for Democracy. People realize that when it comes to national security, developing democratic institutions is more cost-effective than military interventions.
In the light of the financial crisis and budgetary constraints, neither Price nor Dreier anticipated major cuts in foreign assistance but there could be shifts within aid categories. But democracy assistance needs to be coordinated with other aspects of foreign aid, said Price, an “urgent” task in light of the current review of the field.
The Obama administration is unlikely to relegate democracy assistance as a foreign policy priority, said Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute. He highlighted Vice President Joe Biden’s recent speech in which he pledged a renewed emphasis on development and democracy, “two of the most powerful weapons in our collective arsenals.”
Democracy assistance is a genuinely international business, said Lorne Craner
president of the International Republican Institute, compared to ten years ago when only the US, UK and the German stiftungen were involved. There is now a variety of players, from Asia to the Central Europeans, while the staff of US democracy assistance foundations includes many activists from new and emerging democracies who bring distinctive experience and credibility to the work.