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  • Debating Democracy AssistanceA Tune-Up, Not an Overhaul
  • Elizabeth Spiro Clark (bio)

Marina Ottaway and Theresa Chung’s thesis is that “formal” democracy, meaning chiefly “free and fair” elections, costs too much for many democratizing countries. Although they present their argument as a challenge to the conventional wisdom, it in fact supports a view widely held among policy analysts—namely, that advanced democracies should stop pushing (and financing) elections and instead invest more modest sums in “demand-driven” democracy programs.

Although their subject is the cost of democracy, it is apparent that the authors’ main objection to donor policies is not so much that they are too expensive as that they disproportionately emphasize assistance to elections. They fail to analyze the very good reasons for this emphasis. The demand from emerging democracies for elections and election assistance does not arise, as the authors seem to suggest, because governments want to “keep up with the Joneses” (although the current popularity of elections is certainly something to be welcomed; one would rather have “elections chic” than “strongman chic”). It arises because countries emerging from conflict and repression with weak or destroyed institutions see elections as a force for cohesion and consensus. Elections solve problems. That is why they generally come at the beginning of transitions, as the recent Indonesian elections show. [End Page 114]

Elections are more than just another developmental benchmark. Ottaway and Chung encourage their readers to make comparisons between economic-development programs that failed in the past when clients were not ready for them and democracy-support programs (especially election-assistance programs) that are failing now because of a similar lack of readiness. Yet they do not make a persuasive case that elections have failed and that funds have been misdirected to support them.

The authors also make incorrect assumptions about the relationship between economic and political development. If economic development is to be sustainable, economic issues should be subject to debate in fully democratic processes. International financial institutions increasingly recognize this relationship. In a major study entitled Assessing Aid: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why, 1 the World Bank found that 59 percent of the countries with successful structural-adjustment programs had democratically elected governments, while only 29 percent had nondemocratic governments. As former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada told a meeting of 16 emerging democracies in June 1999: “Everything depends on the same little detail—the electoral process.”

Beginning at the Wrong End

If donors, in Ottaway and Chung’s view, should be skeptical about rushing in with election assistance, what kind of democracy assistance should they undertake? The authors favor giving assistance to “spontaneously created” membership-based civil-society organizations, whose strength, they hold, is the key to deepening democracy. There are several problems with this approach.

First, in relation to the subject of their article, the cost of democracy, it is not clear why such assistance is not vulnerable to the same objection that the authors level at election support—that it creates unrealistic expectations, as well as programs that cannot be sustained when international assistance runs out. Typically, longrange democracy assistance comes in the form of “pilot” programs, with the host government commiting itself to financing and expanding the program if it proves to be successful. In theory, omniscient donors will be able to determine which countries can “afford” such assistance. In practice, however, such programs are likely to be ineffective; they are often geared to testing out the latest donor models of development, and to succeed they require a degree of understanding of the local political context that is not realistically attainable.

Second, assistance to civil-society organizations in a country that does not yet have democratic political institutions—because it cannot sustain them—should be called “liberalization support,” not “democracy [End Page 115] support.” This distinction must be borne in mind when the issue of cost is discussed.

Finally, giving priority to small-scale help for the types of civil-society organizations Ottaway and Chung have in mind is to start democracy support at the end, rather than the beginning, of the democratization process. The authors fail to factor in the political context. The organizations that forced the transition...