Reforming the Democracy Bureaucracy

Washington's democracy promotion community is a mess. Here's how to fix it.


U.S. democracy assistance is in desperate need of reform. From its modest beginnings in the Reagan administration, the idea that outsiders can encourage democratic change overseas has grown into a $3 billion industry encompassing a vast array of programs. But the endeavor has evolved into a giant mess. Scholars and practitioners have argued convincingly that the "democracy bureaucracy" remains uncoordinated, is often counterproductive, contains redundancies, and is "characterized by scant strategic thinking and a cumbersome management system."

Just take Azerbaijan. Since the country achieved independence in 1991, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has dumped more than $55 million into programs to make the country more democratic. Meanwhile, the Aliyev family — first father Heydar, then son Ilham — has stayed in power since 1993. The regime has jailed young people for making satirical videos, tightened the rules governing civic organizations, imprisoned hundreds of religious believers branded as "extremists," and failed to hold a single election that met international standards.

But that hasn’t kept USAID — the development organization that distributes more than 80 percent of U.S. democracy dollars — from trying. From 2007 to 2011, USAID spent $5.6 million attempting to "enhance the overall effectiveness" of the parliament of Azerbaijan. The trouble is that parliament has never been freely elected. Every single member of the legislature is a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. U.S. taxpayers paid for an orientation program to "solidify [the parliament’s] own sense of identity" for new members of the Azerbaijani parliament, all of whom were elected in 2010 parliamentary elections that the U.S. Embassy in Baku generously described as "not meet[ing] international standards." The U.S. Embassy also cited an unfair candidate registration process, continued restrictions on freedoms of assembly and expression, and a lack of balanced media coverage during the run-up to the election. During the election itself, U.S. diplomats also spotted ballot box stuffing and other serious violations.

In other words, the U.S. government found fault with the 2010 parliamentary elections — and then trained the winners. USAID even paid for a new website to make the fake parliament more efficient. A final assessment carried out by two outside experts found that the parliamentary program "did not change how the [parliament of Azerbaijan] functions or how ordinary people in Azerbaijan relate to and understand the parliament." After the orientation for members of parliament, they "may be better prepared to do their jobs, [but] there is little debate in the [parliament of Azerbaijan], indicating that the [Parliamentary Program of Azerbaijan] has not changed the core characteristics of the parliament."

Fifty-five million dollars later, the U.S. remains committed to a failing strategy. In August 2012, USAID issued a $1.5 million call for the Azerbaijan Rights Consortium Project that would "enable key civil society organizations to better respond to President Aliyev’s vision" for the country. The idea of U.S. taxpayer dollars going to implement the supposedly democratic "vision" of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president is deeply troubling.

Why, then, does the U.S. government continue to fund misguided programs in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries that display no interest in reform? Why does USAID write seriously of President Aliyev’s benign intentions when he has shown minimal respect for the rights of his own citizens? The reason is as banal as it is galling: bureaucratic self-interest, inertia, and the assumption that more is always better. We can end the waste with a strategic approach to programs and an emphasis on triage, allocating more money where there is a greater chance of real change, not just spending wherever there is a mandate and a mechanism to do so.

The current system may be flawed, but there are some remedies in sight. Supporting democrats is an important plank of U.S. influence and national security that can be improved with three reforms.

First, we ought to recognize that models matter. Two main institutional models exist for promoting democracy: field-based and grant-making organizations. Field-based organizations implement programs through field offices staffed by expatriates and locals, while grant-making organizations maintain a headquarters office, but do not support field offices. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is the best-known independent grant-making organization, while most partners of USAID like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) are field-based organizations.

In closed societies, the NED’s grant-making approach is superior because it does not require field offices that depend on the ongoing permission of an authoritarian government. An organization with a field office in an authoritarian state like Russia, for example, is more vulnerable to strong-arm tactics than a foreign organization that does not seek to maintain a foreign presence. We saw this first-hand in September 2012, when the Russian government ordered USAID to close all of its programs in the Russian Federation. Consequently, all USAID-funded partners with offices in Russia are closing or are scrambling to shift their Russian operations to neighboring countries.

The NED model also acknowledges that outsiders have a limited role to play in democratic transitions. In marked contrast to the field-based model, the NED’s grants are conceptualized, overseen, and implemented by locals; they are driven by the needs and interests of local activists, who know their societies better than any Western development expert. NED program staff who speak relevant local languages frequently visit to monitor the projects. Furthermore, NED’s grants tend to be very small (less than $100,000) and are distributed among a wide range of grantees, thereby reducing the risk that funds might be misused.

The independent grant-making approach offers a much smaller financial pipeline than the field-office alternative, but this is a virtue. A small country awash in donor dollars is an invitation to the unscrupulous, as myriad accounts from Afghanistan attest. Societies produce only so many democratic activists, and too many assistance dollars can create an artificial cottage industry. The NED cannot pump as much money into a country as USAID, but that’s hardly a bad thing.

The grant-making model of the NED is
unique, and it should be bolstered. Congress should increase the National Endowment for Democracy’s current annual budget of $104 million by 20 percent over the next 10 years. At the same time, the U.S. government should leave democracy assistance in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan to the NED.

As a second reform, USAID and its field-based partners should only work in countries where a democratic outcome is likely, or in countries clearly undergoing political transition. Practically speaking, USAID should fund democracy programs only in countries that Freedom House ranks as "partly free" according to its annual Freedom in the World index. Thus, the U.S. should curtail current USAID programs in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. None of these countries have real politics, a viable opposition, a vibrant civil society, an independent press, elite interest in reform, or free and fair elections, nor are they likely to in the foreseeable future. These countries make poor investments for scarce democracy dollars.

It’s worth noting that other international donors direct their resources more strategically. Even the 10 Eastern European members of the European Union — once recipients of U.S. assistance and now new donors in their own right — do not spread their limited democracy dollars thin: they put most of their money into Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine, all countries where change is either underway or feasible. We should follow their example.

Third, democracy is an inherently competitive system, and the democracy bureaucracy identifies competition as central to good governance. Unfortunately, that same value often does not apply in the scramble for allocating democracy dollars. USAID issues multi-million dollar awards without a competitive bidding process for every award, and this has led to stale, cookie-cutter programs that simply keep large democracy organizations afloat. For instance, USAID’s Consortium for Elections and Political Processes Strengthening (CEPPS) process circumvents what is normally a competitive application process for program funds. The CEPPS mechanism guarantees NDI, IRI and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems million-dollar awards without real competition.

The fix is simple: All awards should be competitively bid, and non-competitive mechanisms for awarding program funds — mechanisms that have become all too prevalent in the world of democracy assistance — should be phased out.

Transparency is a vital aspect of competition. Congress can encourage the democracy bureaucracy to become more transparent. Unlike many USAID implementers, the NED discloses the recipients of its funding, the amount of the grant, and a description of the program. All information — including detailed budgets, quarterly reports, final reports and evaluations for USAID-funded programs in countries ranked "partly free" or better — should be publicly available on a single website that Congress, scholars, and citizens can monitor.

Evaluating traditional development programs (such as health assistance or education) is relatively straightforward: You can count the numbers of people who have received immunizations or attended literacy classes. Analyzing the efficacy of democracy promotion efforts is more complicated. Still, it’s important to realize that there are a number of tools today for tracking a given society’s progress toward democracy, and we should make full use of them in monitoring the effects of programs. The U.S. should not continue to spend $3 billion annually if it cannot demonstrate that its democracy programs are having an impact. In the end, the only real measure of democracy promotion is actual progress toward democracy.

Democracy promotion is a noble endeavor, but it requires more than simply injecting funds into closed societies in the hope that assistance will eventually transform them into robust democracies. Hope and change are fine political catchwords, but they won’t suffice if we really aim, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, to "stand…with all those who love freedom and yearn for democracy, wherever they might be."

Melinda Haring is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.