Enhancing Democracy Assistance


This report recognizes that democracy assistance is essential to the promotion of US foreign policy and global interests, and offers political and technical recommendations in order to enhance democracy assistance.

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Today’s global setting poses several distinct challenges to democracy assistance. Countries such as China offer an alternative model of governance that promotes economic development without political reform, while wielding substantial economic leverage. Populist authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies, such as those of Venezuela and Iran, claim popular legitimacy while cracking down on internal dissent. Challenges to democratization have also been exacerbated by the Iraq War and the Global War on Terror (GWOT), which have fueled anti-Americanism around the globe, undermined US credibility, overstretched US resources, and compromised domestic support for democracy assistance.

Democracy’s foes maintain that US democracy assistance is merely a pretext for undermining governments hostile to Americaís interests. They have limited the activities of local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), restricted the independence of the media, and impeded the flow of foreign resources to local pro- democracy groups. Many use counter-terrorism as justification for cracking down on dissent. At home, domestic critics of democracy assistance point to the ongoing problems in Iraq and the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority as evidence that democracy assistance is not in the interest of the United States.

But an assessment of several decades of successful democracy assistance reveals important lessons that can serve as guiding principles for making future efforts effective and pragmatic: (i) be patient, (ii) maintain modesty, (iii) tread softly, (iv) localize leadership, and (v) recognize the limits of military intervention. Americaís role should be to stand behind, not in front of democracy movements.

In order to address negative perceptions of democracy assistance around the world and to rebuild bipartisan support at home, it is necessary to reframe the means and ends of assistance efforts. The democracy assistance community can maximize the impact of its activities by planning for the long term, insuring better training and preparation for field staff, and emphasizing more rigorous project evaluation.

This report offers recommendations to hone proven approaches to democracy assistance, specifically, programs that strengthen civil society, prepare elections, assist political party development, and support democratic governance. It also identifies different regime types that are the focus of democracy assistance — authoritarian states, illiberal democracies, free-wheeling kleptocracies, and post-conflict states. While recognizing that the distinctions among them are not iron-clad, the report offers context-specific recommendations for each.

For authoritarian regimes, this report stresses advocacy to expand the space for political activity and to diffuse political power. It describes strategies for nurturing and supporting underground media and discreetly assisting in-country NGOs, minimizing the risk of regime reprisals. This report also maintains that although support for governance should reinforce democracy assistance, under authoritarian regimes such support must include a democratization component to avoid the risk of undermining the overall process of democratization. Governance support is especially important in countries where reform-oriented governments have recently come to power. If they cannot deliver on expectations by providing improved social services and economic growth, a backlash will likely ensue against both the government as well as the concept of democracy as a viable form of government.

For illiberal democracies, this report highlights the importance of an independent judiciary and the rule of law in constraining despotic tendencies.  To guard against inadvertently strengthening illiberal leaders, it recommends linking governance with democracy assistance while emphasizing participation, contestation, and accountability.  In particular, it proposes security sector reform with a focus on democratic policing and human rights training.

Recommendations for free-wheeling kleptocracies focus on strengthening civil society through support for watchdog groups and grassroots organizations that stimulate local associational life, rather than elite NGOs. This report also stresses long-term work with political parties, so that when an election leads to a shift in power it will result in durable democratic reform.

For post-conflict states, it is important to balance the need for elections as visible evidence of democracyís progress with concerns that elections may empower anti-democratic leaders. Voter registries should accurately reflect pre-war populations, and a transitional justice system should be instituted to promote reconciliation and help address the legacy of violence as the political transition unfolds. Improving security and cultivating social and economic development will also help break the cycle of violence that undermines democracy assistance efforts.

In 2007, the US Government (USG) will spend about $1 billion on democracy assistance in 50 countries (excluding Iraq and Afghanistan). Using these funds effectively requires a flexible approach that incorporates a range of delivery systems suited to the type of regime, the type of assistance, and the geographic location of the beneficiary country. Working through NGOs helps avoid the stigma that typically accompanies direct efforts by the USG, so in addition to project financing, this report proposes that the US Congress fully and more flexibly support the National Endowment for Democracy and political party institutes to insure their rapid response to democratization opportunities.

Relevant government agencies and NGOs should work together to develop the broad outlines for democracy assistance in particular countries, and enhance communication and cooperation in Washington. On the country level, implementers of democracy assistance would benefit from structured opportunities for sharing information and collaboration.

US democracy assistance is most successful when it is undertaken in cooperation with other countries and multilateral organizations. For example, the European Union (EU) has been a magnet for reform since the end of the Cold War, as well as a generous sponsor of democracy assistance. In the context of EU expansion, its Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAA) provide a democratization track for countries that aspire to membership.

This report emphasizes international cooperation that respects donor preferences based on their history of involvement in particular countries and regions and their expertise in specific program areas. It proposes the creation of donor affinity groups with the goal of empowering donors to take responsibility for specific countries, regions, and/or thematic areas. To maximize the potential role of the United Nations, the report suggests that the Secretary General affirm the world bodyís commitment to democracy and make an active effort to marshal consistent support from member states.

This report also highlights the fate of democracy in the Arab and Muslim World. It recognizes the risks posed by extremists who scorn liberalism and reject the path of politics, opting instead to pursue their goals through violence. It affirms, however, that there is nothing inherent in the character of Muslims that is inherently prone to radical ideology or that makes democratization impossible. The democracy deficit in the Arab and Muslim world is a problem of supply, not demand. Stagnant democratic development has been exacerbated by Americaís preference for stability and support for authoritarian regimes. The incoming administration and the democracy assistance community have an opportunity to change this and improve prospects for democracy in the Arab and Muslim world.

What does Hamasí electoral victory and the ascent of Hezbollah mean for the future of democracy assistance? There is no place for violence in the political process, and governments should ban armed political groups from participating in elections if they do not renounce violence. However, it is also critical that policymakers not mistakenly conclude that democracy is somehow incompatible with Islam, or that democracy assistance is futile when addressing mostly Muslim countries. Many Muslims believe otherwise, rejecting fanaticism, invoking the religionís longstanding tradition of pluralism, cosmopolitanism, and open-mindedness, and affirming that the Islamic process of consultation is entirely consistent with democratic debate. The democratization of the Arab and Muslim world, and successful democracy assistance more broadly, requires patience, persistence, and the recognition that short-term setbacks should not undermine long-term goals.

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