The Middle East Channel

Are we repeating democracy promotion mistakes in Tunisia?

As soon as mobilization started to sweep across the Arab world in 2011, observers started to make analogies to the wave of 1989 protests that brought down the Soviet Union. But less thought has gone into the "1990 analogy"– the ways that international efforts to support democracy in the Middle East in 2012 are similar ...


As soon as mobilization started to sweep across the Arab world in 2011, observers started to make analogies to the wave of 1989 protests that brought down the Soviet Union. But less thought has gone into the "1990 analogy"– the ways that international efforts to support democracy in the Middle East in 2012 are similar to or different from the efforts that took place in Central and Eastern Europe in 1990. With Egypt’s democratic transition in limbo, now is the time for U.S. officials to think critically about what they can realistically do to aid democracy in the Middle East and keep the hopes of the Arab Spring alive. An important part of the calculus must be Tunisia, which is frequently called democracy’s "best hope" in the region. Unfortunately, some of the international community’s efforts to help Tunisia’s transition to democracy already show some disturbing signs of repeating the mistakes of 1990.

Thirty years ago in June, U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivered a landmark speech to the British Parliament that pledged the United States’ support to democracy builders around the world. Although Reagan sought to promote democracy in the Soviet Bloc primarily as a strategy for winning the Cold War, democracy assistance has long out-lived its original purpose; it is now a major component of U.S. foreign policy throughout the world. After the end of the Cold War, democracy promotion became, in the words of the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, a "world value." But it is more than a rhetorical affirmation or a value commitment: U.S. democracy assistance is now a multi-billion dollar a year industry.

Initially, Reagan’s vision was realized when congress established the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), in 1983. According to its website, the NED "is guided by the belief that freedom is a universal human aspiration that can be realized through the development of democratic institutions, procedures, and values." The NED has pursued that mission ever since by offering grants to hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world that it believes will support democratic change. In addition to the NED, U.S. democracy assistance efforts now include substantially larger efforts housed within the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department. Those efforts are implemented in large part by NGOs, including the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House — organizations that readers may remember from the Egyptian government’s crackdown on democracy promotion NGOs earlier in 2012.

The democracy assistance efforts that first flourished in Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War were plentiful, optimistic, and sometimes counter-productive. They were plentiful because of the political will of the United States and Western European countries to help the transitions They were optimistic thanks to the idealistic young people in the West leading and designing programs to help their counterparts abroad. Democracy assistance today is much more professional, making up a field that I have called the democracy establishment. And finally, the efforts were sometimes demonstrated to be counter-productive, as in research by anthropologist Janine Wedel and others, because civil society organizations overseas became donor-driven in the search for international funding, focusing more on their survival as organizations than on advancing democratic transitions. That proved to be a problem for civil society as the organizations became disconnected from many of the vital concerns of the societies that they meant to represent. Additionally, as they became more focused on their survival, civil society organizations devoted less energy to promoting democratic change and challenging political leaders who were resisting reform.

Similar dynamics seem poised to emerge in 2012 Tunisia. As in 1990, international financial support for the transition in Tunisia is fairly strong. The aid commitments — including a $100 million cash transfer from the United States government — appear even stronger when considered in the context of the global financial crisis, which prompted the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to say in 2011 that the Middle East "has chosen a bad time to revolt."

The political will of Western states to support Tunisia’s transition — even if it could at times be backed up with larger financial commitments — gives some welcome flexibility to democracy assisters on the ground. Flexibility means patient donors, in contrast to the usual clamor for quick, quantitative outputs. One of the main conclusions of a study of democracy assistance in the former Yugoslavia was that the emphasis on quantitative results caused practitioners to "teach to the test" instead of pursuing long-term democratization. In post-revolution Tunisia, donors’ political will gives democracy assisters freedom to pursue important projects aiding political parties that may not bear immediate fruit. But how long that donor commitment will last as Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime recedes farther into memory is uncertain.

As in 1990, the atmosphere in Tunisia is optimistic. Prior to the revolution, Tunisia received virtually no democracy aid. As a consequence, civil society in Tunisia is younger and less professional than elsewhere in the region (i.e. Jordan). In other countries, professional civil society organizations are continually searching for international funding, leading them to become divorced from the concerns of their societies and to select anodyne programs that are less likely to upset their host governments. As in Eastern Europe, surviving as organizations can come at the expense of democratization. Because Tunisia’s civil society is less professional than civil society elsewhere, we see less of that "taming" of democracy assistance, which is generally a good thing.

But the lack of professionalism in Tunisian civil society comes with some downsides. Fewer people are comfortable working with international experts. Foreign NGOs are often viewed suspiciously (Egypt, anyone?), and a lack of familiarity with the "democracy establishment" encourages such suspicion. When I was recently in Tunisia, I talked to local organizations that were (understandably) worried about international actors’ motives, leading them to sometimes discount those actors’ genuine expertise. Certain areas of democracy promotion, especially electoral assistance, are quite technical fields and international experts have important information about registration, electoral management bodies, and monitoring that transitioning countries need. The lack of professionalism also means that relatively few Tunisian organizations have what it takes to compete successfully for international grants in a marketplace that includes international NGOs with dedicated fundraising staff.

Perhaps the biggest downside is that the lack of professionalism is not likely to last for long, especially given today’s global professional field of democracy assistance, something that did not exist in 1990. The appealingly idealistic and non-bureaucratic characteristics of civil society in Tunisia may already be disappearing. How could they not be if local organizations need to develop their capacities in order to compete against international organizations for funding?

In Tunisia, I met a phenomenal group of young Tunisians at the American Corner, a cultural center sponsored by the U.S. NGO AMIDEAST and funded in part by the United States Embassy in Tunis. I told them how impressed I was with many of the local organizations that I had visited, especially compared to elsewhere in the region. Many of them wanted me to shed that optimism. They told me about NGOs they knew that were scrambling for any and all international funds — organizational missions be damned.

In other words, Tunisia seems poised to experience the same downsides of democracy assistance from 1990. Is there any way out? If donors’ political will remains strong, then organizations will have less need to fight for funding and become driven by donors. And if donors maintain strong monitoring systems –including a local presence in Tunisia and giving aid through fewer intermediary organizations — then overseas NGOs will have less opportunity to design programs that help them survive but don’t necessarily help democratization.

If Tunisia is democracy’s best hope in the Middle East, then the international community needs to get those things right. Research shows that having democratic neighbors makes a country more likely to democratize. In other words, the benefits for the efforts of the international community’s effective support of Tunisia’s democratic transition could be extensive for the Middle East.

Sarah Bush is a Research Fellow in the International Security Program in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and is writing a book about democracy promotion. Her recent research in Tunisia was supported by a grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science. Her website is and she tweets at @sarahsunnbush.