In her FP article “Reforming the Democracy Bureaucracy,” Melinda Haring describes U.S. democracy assistance as “a giant mess…..in desperate need of reform.” She bases her claim on a critique of programs implemented by for-profit development contractors and U.S.-based nonprofits like the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
Instead, Haring says that small grants from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to local pro-democracy groups should be the only form of U.S. assistance in authoritarian countries that the Freedom House Freedom in the World index ranks as “not free.”
It’s an attractive idea. We all love democracy and hate dictators. Let’s stop messing around with the oppressors and just fund the opposition activists. And let’s cut out the middleman while we’re at it.
The problem is that Haring forgets to ask the most important question: What kinds of programs and strategies have worked in the past and are likely to work in the future?
In most of those 35 countries that made a transition from “not free” to “partly free” or “free” at some point between 1993 and 2012, there was substantial U.S. democracy assistance during the time that they qualified as “not free.” There were NED grants, political party programs, election observers, for-profit contractors, and others — exactly the kind of messy assistance strategy that Haring wants to eliminate.
Of course, there are no permanent and unambiguous successes in democracy assistance. Some countries slipped back to “not free.” Only two, Indonesia and Yugoslavia/Serbia, have made it all the way to “free.”
Would the results have been better if, as Haring proposes, NED support to local NGOs had been the only form of U.S. assistance? Would the transitions have been more sustainable? Would there now be more countries in the “free” category?
Even after three decades of research and experience with democracy transitions and assistance, there are not many areas of consensus. Francis Fukuyama emphasizes institutions, Fareed Zakaria highlights rule of law, and George Soros puts his money on civil society. The one thing that just about everyone would agree on, however, is that the outcomes never depend on a single factor. Michael McFaul, an academic specialist (and former NDI staffer) in democracy promotion now serving as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, has said: “There is not one story line or a single model. There are many paths to democratic transitions and most of them are messy.”
The article Haring cites by Tom Melia that coined the term “democracy bureaucracy” concludes that “pluralism in the promotion of political pluralism is a good thing” and “there is clear value associated with this diversity [among many specialized NGOs, competing USG agencies, offices and budgets], as mission-focused NGOs address complementary aspects of democratization, and different funders perceive complementary opportunities.”
What happens after a democratic transition is just as important as what happens before it, but, as Francis Fukuyama recently wrote, “everyone is interested in studying political institutions that limit or check power — democratic accountability and rule of law — but very few people pay attention to the institution that accumulates and uses power, the state.”
That’s natural. Democratic revolutions are thrilling, exciting, dramatic events featuring photogenic activists battling the police on city streets and squares. Building a state is a drawn-out slog starring morally ambiguous government functionaries under flickering lights in dingy buildings. Being part of a democratic revolution is like falling in love. Governance is more like trying to make an arranged marriage work.
Haring’s longer paper on on democracy assistance attacks “cookie-cutter programs that [do] not take into account a country’s specific circumstances or incentive structure…”. Absolutely right. But her own proposal also imposes one solution on all countries.
Haring is absolutely right that democracy assistance is central to America’s values, to our interests and to our security. But in a complex world, where progress toward democracy and better government are fragile and rare, we are more likely to accomplish our goals if we have more tools and strategies at our disposal, not fewer.
This extract is taken from a longer article published by Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab. RTWT
Tomas Bridle, of the Society for International Development, has designed and implemented programs to support democratic transition and strengthen governance in Kyrgyzstan, Kosovo, Iraq and Pakistan. From 1992-93 he served as an advisor to President Vaclav Havel in post-communist Czechoslovakia.