Democracy Aid at 25: Time to Choose
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Democracy Aid at 25:
Time to Choose

With the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall so recently upon us, efforts to take stock of the global state of democracy have been proliferating. Efforts to take stock of the state of democracy aid, by contrast, have been a good deal rarer. Even though this type of international assistance has a specific goal—to foster and advance democratization—criteria for assessing it are elusive. “Democracy aid” itself is a catchall term for an endeavor that has acquired enough moving parts to make drawing boundaries around it difficult. Reaching conclusions about methods or effects that apply broadly across an ever more diverse field is daunting.

Yet such a stocktaking, imperfect though it will inevitably be, is necessary. Since the late 1980s, democracy aid has evolved from a specialized niche into a substantial, well-institutionalized domain that affects political developments in almost every corner of the globe. A quarter-century ago, the field was thinly populated, principally by the institutes affiliated with each of the major German and U.S. political parties, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Latin America Bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the International Foundation for Election Systems, and a few other organizations. Today, nearly every Western government gives some aid for democracy-building, whether through its foreign ministry, bilateral-aid agency, or other institutions.

Likewise, the family of political-party foundations and multi-party institutes that offer political aid across borders has expanded greatly. Numerous private U.S. and European foundations now fund [End Page 59] programs to foster greater political openness and pluralism. An ever-growing range of transnational NGOs, both nonprofit “mission-driven” organizations and for-profit consulting firms, carry out programs aimed at strengthening democratic processes and institutions. Many multilateral organizations have entered the field as well. These include the UN Development Programme, the UN Democracy Fund, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and regional organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Organization of American States. Moreover, the governments of some of the larger “emerging democracies,” such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey, are starting to use aid to support democratic change in their own respective neighborhoods.

With this striking growth in the number of actors has come a similar swelling of resources. In the late 1980s, less than US$1 billion a year went to democracy assistance. Today, the total is more than $10 billion. This spending translates into thousands of projects that directly engage hundreds of thousands of people in the developing and post-communist worlds. The expansion of democracy aid also entails a widening reach. Two and a half decades ago, most democracy aid flowed to Latin America and a few Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Taiwan. In the intervening years, it has spread around the world, following the democratic wave as it washed across Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, Asia, and the Middle East. Today, at least some democracy aid reaches every country that has moved away from authoritarian rule, as well as most countries still living under dictatorship. When new political transitions look promising, as they did in Burma and Tunisia several years back, a scramble occurs as organizations trip over one another in search of ways to bring democracy aid to bear.

Despite this impressive growth, many practitioners and observers wonder whether the field is adopting smarter methods over time and achieving better results, or just repeating itself in an endless loop of set approaches and inflated but never-fulfilled expectations. These lingering doubts come at a time when democracy aid is becoming increasingly controversial, a target for powerholders in many parts of the world who attack it as a form of subversion that deserves to be met with harsh countermeasures. Democracy’s travails in many countries where it has long held sway, plus the waning of the optimism that accompanied the spread of democracy when the “third wave” was at its height, fuel serious questioning in diverse quarters about whether democracy support is even a legitimate enterprise...