Can Washington Stop Doing Dumb Democracy Promotion, Please?

President Obama once said: “Don’t do stupid shit.” USAID’s new director should take heed.

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On Nov. 30, the Senate voted to confirm longtime international development expert Gayle Smith as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal agency responsible for overseas humanitarian projects like caring for refugees, building clinics, and supporting democracy. In her confirmation speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Smith pledged to expand USAID’s “work and impact on democracy, rights, and governance.” But before Smith expands that work, she should take a look under the hood. She’s likely to find more than a few problems.

While USAID’s traditional development work is better known than its democracy work, the organization dominates democracy assistance, distributing more than 85 percent of the $3 billion the United States spends every year to make the world more democratic.

It’s hardly news that the democracy bureaucracy is often uncoordinated, redundant, and counterproductive. Sometimes, it’s not very smart. Last year, USAID made headlines when details about a secretive social media program designed to bring regime change to Cuba became public. But supporting democrats is an important plank of U.S. influence and national security, and one that can be improved with three reforms that I previously outlined for Democracy Lab.

First, the U.S. government should leave democracy assistance in countries that Freedom House ranks as “not free,” like Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe, to the independent grant-making model exemplified by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) — because in-country offices in authoritarian countries entail all sorts of compromises, dilute programs, and are far more expensive. Second, field-based organizations like the National Democratic Institute and Chemonics International should focus on “partly free” and “free” places already on the road to change, like Ukraine and Tunisia. Finally, noncompetitive mechanisms for awarding funds to democracy promotion organizations should end.

These reforms might be too radical for Smith, a late-Obama-era political appointee whose days in her new role may be numbered. But at a minimum, she should ensure that USAID is putting its limited democracy dollars into countries where there is political will to change.

In the past, I have highlighted laughably wasteful programs in Eurasia, from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan. But democracy assistance programs in the former Soviet Union are a drop in the bucket compared to other “not free” countries that policymakers prioritize. This means that USAID dumps lots of money into countries that lack any political will to change. These programs are enormously expensive, unsuited for these countries’ circumstances, naively constructed, and may do more harm than good.  

In Afghanistan, USAID committed $216 million to empower 75,000 young women in an attempt to ensure that they’ll be included in the next generation of Afghan leaders. This is the U.S. government’s largest women’s empowerment project in history, and its cost exceeds the NED’s annual budget. Its implementers are for-profit contractors: Chemonics, Development Alternatives Inc., and Tetra Tech. USAID has already received a letter from the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction worrying that Afghan women engaged in the program “may be left without any tangible benefit upon completion.” The inspector general writes that many of his concerns were echoed by Afghanistan’s first lady, who said, “I do hope that we are not going to fall again into the game of contracting and sub-contracting and the routine of workshops and training sessions generating a lot of certificates on paper and little else.”

The program wants “women to become leaders alongside their male counterparts, and ensure they have the skills, experience, knowledge, and networks to succeed,” which is standard USAID boilerplate — but it is unrealistic, unattainable, and potentially even dangerous to women, given the precarious state of women’s rights in the country. As Human Rights Watch has noted, highly visible women in Afghanistan, such as policewomen and activists, experienced a series of threats and assassinations in 2014 — and the government failed to protect them. But even aside from the question of safety, the program may simply be too big. Societies produce only so many genuine activists, and too much assistance can create an artificial cottage industry and invite abuse.

In 2013, USAID authorized Democracy International to “develop effective, inclusive, and accountable governance” in South Sudan, a country where civil war has displaced an estimated 2 million people and killed at least 50,000. The five-year program, with a $74.7 million price tag, was meant to “promote a peaceful democratic transition by facilitating smooth elections, the establishment of a sustainable constitution, and by promoting the participation of citizens.” On March 24, South Sudan’s national parliament delayed the country’s first elections and extended the terms of all elected officials, including President Salva Kiir, by three years. So much for citizen engagement. The program was also meant to provide direct assistance to the National Constitutional Review Committee to “support an inclusive constitutional development process.” The commission, established in 2012, has failed to produce a draft constitution.

In Jordan, a country where King Abdullah II controls the Senate, approves laws and can dismiss the parliament, prime minister and cabinet at whim, USAID pledged $35.7 million this September to “support King Abdullah’s democratic reforms.” King Abdullah has weathered the Arab Spring better than most in his region by sacking a prime minister, passing new constitutional amendments, and holding parliamentary elections. However, his moves to assuage demonstrators are window dressing, and they are better understood as a ploy to stay in power rather than a genuine desire to embrace democracy.

USAID continues to fund such ill-advised programs in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries that display no interest in reform for three reasons: bureaucratic self-interest, inertia, and the assumption that more is always better. As I have written before, we can end the waste with 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.

For starters, President Barack Obama’s oft-criticized foreign-policy mantra — “don’t do stupid shit” — is perfectly suited to democracy promotion. The programs in Afghanistan, Jordan, and South Sudan never should have been approved. If the U.S. government discontinued these and other programs in similarly unpromising environments, nothing would change in those countries — but the democracy bureaucracy and its staff in those countries might have to find new employment. The bottom line is that scarce U.S. dollars to promote democracy should go toward countries where real and genuine progress is possible.

The United States shouldn’t give up completely on “not free” countries; instead, it should support democrats in “not free” countries primarily with modest grants through the NED. The U.S. government can also plant seeds in “not free” countries through exchanges and online programs that don’t require an in-country presence. In Iran, for example, an e-learning program to teach democratic values to civil society makes a real difference without the need for field offices.

In her confirmation hearing, Smith assured the Senate: “USAID has taken great strides to improve operations, increase transparency, embrace accountability, and ensure that the agency is both responsive and responsible.” It’s time for her to seriously examine whether USAID’s work in “not free” countries is actually responsible and yields “greater and more potent returns for the United States and millions of men, women, and children around the world.” I have my doubts — and taxpayers should, too.

In the photo, a U.S. ship delivering food aid from USAID is docked at Port Sudan. 

Photo credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, Dec. 16, 2015: The five-year USAID-funded program to improve governance in South Sudan has been adjusted since its inception by its implementer, Democracy International, to reflect difficult and changing conditions on the ground. The original version of this article incorrectly described the assistance provided through this program to the country’s National Constitutional Review Committee as having already been provided. The wording has been edited to reflect that this was the program’s original intent.

Also, in Freedom House’s 2015 report on Tunisia, it is rated as a “free” country. The original version of this article described Tunisia as “partly free” — this was the correct rating through 2014. 

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