The West’s development assistance should be more focused on strengthening civil society, Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi (left) said today.
“If development policies could be linked as strongly to the strengthening of civil society as to the improvement of the economy, it would create a strong impetus towards good governance,” she said in a video address to a European aid forum.
“Financial and intellectual investment in civil society would have rich returns that include accountability and transparency, not just in the economic sector but also in the political arena,” she said.
The West’s approach to foreign aid has been criticized for discarding democratic criteria and allowing regimes to divert assistance funds to government supporters and allies, penalizing critical voices while bolstering authoritarian rule.
Some development agencies, like the US Millennium Challenge Corporation, are trying to tighten the criteria for providing assistance to ensure that it functions as “a catalyst for deepening democracy by creating incentives for policy reform and engaging democratic actors.”
But some democracy advocates fear that the Obama administration’s “reframing” of democracy in largely developmental terms implies an overly cautious, incremental, approach to democracy assistance.
There is “a strong desire to support those countries where democratization and development go together,” State Department policy planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter told the Digest. She had said she would be “surprised if it [democracy assistance] was subordinated” in the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.
But democracy advocates have been disappointed that their issues are relegated to secondary status and fear that development professionals dismiss their agenda as overly political, idealistic or utopian.
“We who are trying to establish a democratic society in Burma do not have an unrealistic vision of an earthly paradise,” Suu Kyi said.
“We are simply trying to create a society in which the people will be allowed to work freely and responsibly towards their own betterment,” she said.
The authoritarian backlash against democracy assistance has seen a raft of measures – as the Defending Civil Society report notes – aimed at impeding, complicating or effectively neutering the work of independent civil society groups, particularly those working on human rights, democracy or other politically-sensitive issues.