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  • Debating Democracy AssistanceThe Cost of Doing Nothing
  • E. Gyimah-Boadi (bio)

Democracy support is a relatively new form of development assistance. Even more than with other forms of external aid, there are no blueprints for building democracy or for assisting those seeking to do so. We are still years away from identifying, let alone prescribing, “best practices” in this area. Moreover, as with other types of post-Cold War development assistance, the possibility of “donor fatigue” is real, and the question of sustainability is crucial. Thus Marina Ottaway and Theresa Chung are right to emphasize the importance of treading cautiously in what is essentially uncharted terrain and of being mindful of the cost of democracy assistance.

There are many problems with the Ottaway and Chung essay, however. A major flaw in their analysis is that while it addresses the cost of democracy assistance, it neglects the costs of not providing such assistance. Nobody said democracy would come cheap. But what is the cost of the “alternative”? In addition to dwelling on the dollar costs of democracy, we must also look at what might be called the “missed-opportunity cost”—the quantifiable and nonquantifiable costs of the alternative to democracy and the long-term cost savings from democratization. Consider the direct and indirect costs attached to politics in an authoritarian setting—expenditures wasted on ritualistic, stage-managed elections conducted under single-party regimes, or on the large number of functionaries, advisers, and cadres that are part of the baggage of neopatrimonial nondemocratic regimes? And what about the nonmonetary costs of being deprived of the opportunity to enjoy [End Page 119] the universal values of democracy? Any meaningful assessment of the costs of democracy must be made in comparison with the costs of nondemocratic political practices.

Indeed, the validity of some of the examples cited by Ottaway and Chung to back their contention that democracy assistance is too costly is questionable. “Cost consciousness” is carried too far when the elections in Mozambique in 1994 or Ghana in 1996 are assailed on grounds of costs. By any measure, money spent on those elections was money well spent. In the case of Mozambique, the election helped bring an end to a protracted and brutal civil war. Most importantly, the peace has held and there is scarcely any evidence that the country is retreating from democracy, even after an expensive election. In the case of Ghana, the 1996 election was judged as free and fair by independent domestic and international observers. Significantly, the results of this second transition election were broadly accepted by all the political players, thereby putting Ghanaian democratization on a course of consolidation. This contrasted sharply with the presidential elections of 1992, whose results were rejected by the opposition parties, which then boycotted the parliamentary elections, nearly derailing the transition to democracy.

By looking only at what is really the “start-up” period of democratic transitions, the authors announce a premature verdict on the costs associated with this new area of donor assistance. The “start-up” costs of democracy are bound to be relatively high, reflecting the inefficiencies as well as the trial and error associated with every new undertaking. As actors and institutions gain experience and become more efficient in managing their resources, there is likely to be a decline in average cost over time. Ottaway and Chung’s alarm would be justified only if the costs of elections remained high or escalated beyond the transition phase, especially after alternation in power had taken place.

Sustaining Civil Society

The real challenge posed by Ottaway and Chung’s essay is on the question of sustainability—that is, whether transitional democracies have the local capacity to sustain donor-funded initiatives and programs over the medium and long term. To be sure, the prospects of sustaining democratic reforms will be much better if they are backed by local sources of funding. But incumbent regimes, typically reluctant to undertake democratic reforms and faced with severe resource constraints, are generally unable or unwilling to fund programs designed to improve the workings of governmental institutions. At the same time, the private sector in many of the new democracies is weak. By and large, it is civil...