For 40 years, the U.S. government has ignored what sorts of democracy promotion work — and which ones don’t
By Stephen Golub, July 4, 2023
As America celebrates Independence Day, we find our democracy not nearly as strong as we’d once thought. Authoritarian challenges threaten our institutions, our rights and the rule of law.
Ironically, this sobering reality confronts us after the United States, along with affluent allies, has devoted decades and massive resources to trying to build democracy in the world’s poorer and post-communist societies, including via rule of law, good governance, human rights and anti-corruption programs. With some exceptions — mostly centered on providing electoral assistance and fortifying civil society and media — these efforts have largely fallen flat. Data from Freedom House, the World Bank and the World Justice Project confirm the decline in democracy and associated fields across the globe.
Why the widespread failure? First, we hubristically bit off more than we could chew. The United States mistakenly assumed that foreign aid for training and equipping recipient nations’ government institutions could overcome the deep-seated political, historical, economic and cultural forces permeating them and could thus build democracies in our image.
Second, in focusing most democracy aid on such government institution-building, the United States put a relative paucity of resources into nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society forces that modestly but more effectively strengthen specific policies, processes and populations.
In some ways, the roots of this failure reach back to our experience in the Philippines at the outset of the 20th century. At that time, America’s imperialist endeavor drove the Spanish from the archipelago and brutally crushed an indigenous independence movement. During the next half-century, we built corrupt, elite-controlled government institutions instead of strengthening grass- roots participation in representative government. This became an unintentional template for our subsequent democracy-building abroad decades later.
That template became salient when, in the 1980s, a host of actors and factors combined to make democracy a U.S. foreign policy priority.
Providing political cover for its wars in Central America and right-wing allies throughout Latin America, the Reagan administration funded government-focused, ostensibly democracy-promoting programs in the region. The unfortunate upshot was, for example, partnering with human rights-violating governments on major and, ultimately, unsuccessful administration of justice initiatives to which officials in our partner nations were actually resistant or indifferent. Similarly flawed and government-focused U.S. democracy programs arose alongside backing for authoritarian Cold War allies elsewhere.
In a more promising development, the 1980s also saw bipartisan support for the new National Endowment for Democracy, new U.S. Agency for International Development projects and other U.S. initiatives that provided small grants to civil society and media initiatives around the world. But such funding was (and is) dwarfed by major USAID programs and related support for government institutions.
This funding disparity meant that, as the United States started pouring money into top-down programs geared toward building American-style government institutions abroad, it tended to downplay support for civil society programs that could directly benefit and strengthen populations poorly served by those institutions.
By contrast, various private funding sources prioritized civil society. The Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corp. and other donors made grants to South African NGOs pursuing anti-apartheid legal activism. Financier George Soros began providing funds for innovators, budding democracy activists, journalists and international exchanges as Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union slowly started to liberalize. The partly U.S.-funded but private Asia Foundation supported Bangladeshi NGOs’ innovative local dispute resolution work. (I worked for the foundation elsewhere, and later evaluated and researched that work.)
These privately supported efforts exhibited promising results as they expanded their operations and impact in the 1990s. They contributed to significant health, housing and other victories in South Africa after the racist regime stepped down. Bangladeshi NGOs’ local dispute resolution models gathered steam — and support from additional donors and the Bangladeshi government itself — by ameliorating gender inequities and providing the poor with alternatives to a distant, corrupt and incomprehensible judicial system.
Around the world, both foundations and donor nations alike funded a growing array of NGOs featuring paralegals who, unlike those working in U.S. law offices, were typically community-based volunteers whom NGO attorneys trained and collaborated with. They advocated for and with their communities and fellow citizens to address health, housing, land, gender and other issues.
These programs thrived at the same moment that the United States and other affluent nations began pouring greatly expanded sums into seeding democracy worldwide in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern European communist regimes and the Soviet Union. Books on “exporting democracy” — even presenting it as America’s destiny — assumed it was the wave of the future.
Yet, the United States ignored the success of the projects funded by foundations and clung to the notion that foreign aid to governments could secure dramatic democratic transformations. This partly stemmed from foreign policy priorities, including the post-Cold War perspective that fortifying U.S.-friendly capitalist democracies was in our own economic and political interest. But it also flowed from a bureaucratic reality: It was easier to secure funding in Washington for ambitious programs that promised to build up national ministries, legislatures and judiciaries than for local programs that worked with farmers, women or other disadvantaged groups.
Maintaining this unfortunate focus, George W. Bush linked his post-9/11 military and political programs to both defeating terrorism and installing democracy, stoking cynicism in many circles about that latter effort. Even if viewed in the most charitable light, U.S. democracy-building efforts in Afghanistan proved no match for the dominance of warlords and — as with some other aid recipient nations — entrenched corruption networks that permeated the government.
The past two decades have seen U.S. democracy aid flow and ebb, in response to such events as the Arab Spring and its demise. This aid has continued to feature a blend of foreign policy priorities, immense bureaucracy, hubris, cynicism and idealism. Its misplaced priorities have endured: Despite the documented success of paralegal programs, for example, many have suffered funding cutbacks from American and other sources.
All of this helps explain the mediocre record for U.S. democracy promotion: The United States has focused too much on working with change-resistant institutions and too little on supporting the civil society and media change agents that might gradually affect such institutions over the long haul. Even in the short term, these shortchanged programs have a record of helping citizens bring about concrete results — improving farmers’ land tenure, combating corruption, reducing violence against women, enhancing communities’ health or strengthening inputs into local governance, among other goals. They may not be as sexy as transforming a country’s government, but history indicates such programs actually work.
All told, the United States has poured about $100 billion into democracy aid over the past 40 years, mostly for large-scale, government-focused programs, often designed and implemented by international consulting firms.
However, despite far less funding, homegrown projects that draw on local knowledge — which foreign consultants and aid officials lack — and that help partner populations pursue economic, health, political or human rights priorities have proved far more successful.
In a related vein, U.S. support for free and fair elections — programs often carried out by American NGOs that provide election-oriented monitoring, advice and training — has yielded notable achievements. Such programs have protected electoral integrity in some instances and fueled successful drives to challenge corrupt results in others, including Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.
With the exception of such dramatic electoral results, civil society support may not produce the seismic shifts that American officials seek. But neither has the top-down, institution-building approach that has fruitlessly gobbled up vast resources.
Authoritarians are strong until they’re not. History is littered with the downfalls of repressive regimes that once appeared firmly entrenched. Just recently, the world saw Vladimir Putin’s seemingly iron hold on power shaken by the corrupt forces he himself enabled.
Thus, the global pendulum may yet swing back toward democracy. Helping to make that happen, in however modest a manner, demands supporting the kinds of efforts that have worked in the past and rethinking those that have not.
These lessons apply at home as well. Even as we honor Independence Day, the health of our government institutions seems in question. But a vibrant civil society, a thriving free press and safeguarding elections can protect those institutions’ integrity, keeping the flames of political accountability burning and ensuring that our democracy endures.
This post was produced by Benicia resident Stephen Golub. Steve blogs about domestic and international politics and policy, including lessons that the United States can learn from other nations, at A Promised Land: America as a Developing Country. If interested, you may sign up for future posts by subscribing to the blog.
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