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  • Debating Democracy AssistanceSometimes Less Is More
  • Irena Lasota (bio)

It is not easy for me to discuss Marina Ottaway and Theresa Chung’s article “The Cost of Democracy.” I am inclined to agree with several of their general theses: that Western donors often support projects driven by supply rather than demand; that some of the money poured into recipient countries is wasted; and that some of the donor-financed institutions that have emerged in democratizing countries will not become self-sustaining. At the same time, their analysis lumps together countries that are vastly different in their political, social, and economic circumstances. Despite the fact that the bulk of their examples are drawn from poorer countries in Africa, Ottaway and Chung seem to suggest that their conclusions are valid for all recipient countries, including those of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It is the latter group of countries with which I am most familiar, and I shall therefore restrict my own comments to the postcommunist world.

Generally speaking, there are three prevalent ways of looking at the role of Western donors in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union over the past ten years. The first takes the form of the donors themselves bragging about the success of their work. Their claim goes something like this: “We did it, we taught them, we showed them, we supplied them, and we won the elections.” The second takes the form of “donor-bashing”: “They don’t know what they are doing; they throw money away; if only taxpayers and the Congress knew about all the abuses.” The third and most serious approach takes the form of donors (and knowledgeable critics) assessing the merits of their work: “This program worked, that one did not; this was a good idea, that one [End Page 125] was not.” When applied to postcommunist states, this last approach indicates that some Western assistance programs not only have facilitated successful transitions to democracy, but may also serve as models in the future for countries—like Serbia or Uzbekistan—that are lagging behind their neighbors in the democratization process.

Thus my own assessment of Western assistance programs is more positive than that of Ottaway and Chung, at least as far as the postcommunist world is concerned. I want to formulate three simple theses that may help to bridge my apparent disagreement with them: 1) Positive results are inversely proportional to the amount of donor money spent on particular projects; 2) positive results are directly proportional to the number of local actors involved; 3) local initiatives can become self-sustaining when modest investments are made to facilitate the involvement of local actors. I will expand on these points in examining the three areas of assistance that Ottaway and Chung discuss: elections, political parties, and civil society.

Elections. The most important and interesting point about the postcommunist transitions to democracy is that the first genuinely free and pluralistic elections to take place in this region (particularly in the Baltic states and some of the other non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union) were organized with practically no support from the West. It is true that in the case of certain Central and Eastern European countries in 1989–90 Western donors supplied a few computers, provided funds to citizens’ committees to print posters and leaflets, and flew in election observers. Yet I would estimate that the cost per registered voter remained roughly $0.10 at the most (as compared with $11.34 in South Africa in 1994). In the Republic of Georgia, the elections of October 1989 were free and pluralistic and attracted a turnout of over 70 percent, despite Soviet laws, Soviet pressure, and a lack of money, both local and foreign. Thus the first round of elections in countries emerging from communism required neither substantial foreign investment nor extensive voter-education initiatives. Voters in the region knew what real elections were all about. They knew that they had to vote to change their lives, and in most cases they even knew exactly whom they wanted to vote for or against.

Although the National Endowment for Democracy and the Soros network of foundations provided...