One Size Does Not Fit All

Why it's best to use every tool in the toolbox when it comes to democracy assistance.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

In her FP article "Reforming the Democracy Bureaucracy," Melinda Haring describes U.S. democracy assistance as "a giant mess" and "in desperate need of reform." She bases her claim on a critique of programs in authoritarian countries, like Azerbaijan, that are 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. She defines authoritarian as any country that the 2013 Freedom in the World index from Freedom House 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 basic and important question: What kinds of programs and strategies have worked in the past and are likely to work in the future? She offers some assertions to support her NED-only approach.

The evidence tells a different story. Out of the 195 countries and 14 territories on that Freedom House index, 35 countries made a transition from "not free" to "partly free" or "free" at some point between 1993 and 2012. These 35 include some significant and strategic successes for democracy promotion, such as Liberia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Uganda.

In most of those 35 countries there was substantial U.S. democracy assistance during the time that they qualified as "not free." It was provided through a variety of different mechanisms and organizations: 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."

It’s impossible to definitively say what kinds of assistance played what role in these transitions. But 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 (literally) 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."

If Haring reads the evidence differently, she should say so, but even her own sources disagree with her. The article she 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."

Another problem with the NED-only rule is that we can’t wait until a country gets the Freedom House seal of approval to begin planning and implementing the assistance it will need after the transition. 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.

NED programs are not enough to lay the groundwork for that kind of work. For example: Kyrgyzstan was rated as "not free" in 2010, but in March of that year a new, democratic government appealed to the United States for support with elections and governance. USAID’s response drew on diverse set of resources and experience who were already in place, including NDI, election support groups, and for-profit contractors. That would not have been possible if NED had been the only resource. Kyrgyzstan still has plenty of issues and no program is perfect, but overall that assistance was successful and effective. (Disclosure: I helped design USAID’s legislative strengthening program in Kyrgyzstan at that time.)

Haring says the United States should follow the example of small East European countries that "put most of their money into Georgia, Moldova, Serbia and Ukraine, all countries where change is either underway or feasible." But her own sources suggest that these donors also support Belarus, which is emphatically "not free" by any measure.

In any case, the U.S. has strategic, political and economic interests vastly more complex than a country like Poland or the Czech Republic. Our democracy assistance programs have to reflect that complexity. If Haring’s rule applied, there would be no substantial U.S. democracy assistance in the 47 countries around the world that Freedom House ranks as "not free." These include Afghanistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Iraq, Jordan, Rwanda, and Tibet.  

I’ve seen many of those programs first-hand. I even worked on the program in Azerbaijan that Haring criticizes. There are countless inefficiencies and problems. But throwing out all but one type of assistance won’t fix those problems and won’t move those countries any closer to democracy and good governance.

There are many points on which Haring and I would agree.  For example, her longer paper on democracy assistance attacks "cookie-cutter programs that [do] not take into account a country’s specific circumstances or incentive structure…" and recounts her frustration with democracy specialists who care more about bureaucratic politics than democratic change. Absolutely right. But her own proposal also imposes one solution on all countries. And the NED — for all its strengths — plays the same bureaucratic games as everyone else.

More fundamentally, 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.

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