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  • Debating Democracy AssistanceToward a New Paradigm
  • Marina Ottaway (bio) and Theresa Chung (bio)

The cost of democratic development—the price tag attached to building democratic institutions, electoral processes, and even political parties and civil-society organizations—is an issue that has received scant attention. Yet a combination of donors’ well-intentioned efforts at accelerating democratization and recipients’ ambition to adopt modern, up-to-date processes is driving up the cost of formal democracy in many parts of the world without necessarily deepening its content. Some of the practices that have become common during the 1990s risk pricing democracy out of the reach of the less-developed countries (LDCs) or at least making it dependent on donors’ continued subsidies.

There are striking parallels with what happened in the realm of economic development. Donors are repeating mistakes made decades earlier. Well-meaning economic development programs often failed because donors financed projects that LDCs could not afford, undermining in the process their capacity to devise more suitable solutions. Such projects were not necessarily unneeded “white elephants,” nor were they necessarily poorly implemented. On the contrary, many supplied useful facilities such as rural schools or clinics. The problem was simply that the recipients could not afford to support the ongoing costs of these projects, even when they were originally provided free of charge. They were, literally, gifts the recipients could not afford. [End Page 99] This led to the deterioration, not only of the donated facilities, but also of preexisting ones, as governments struggled to cope with systems that were overextended in relation to their financial capacity. The schools donors built in Tanzanian villages at no cost to the government, for example, turned into albatrosses around the neck of the Ministry of Education, which was responsible for running facilities for which it had neither the personnel nor the funds.

The same problems are emerging in the area of democracy promotion. Aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from donor countries are putting in place organizations, institutions, and processes that poor countries are unable to finance on their own, sometimes undermining more sustainable alternatives. Like the donated schools, many of these projects are useful—better voter-registration systems or stronger civil-society organizations are certainly relevant to the development of democracy. Yet if they are unsustainable without continued funding from outside donors, they make no lasting contribution and indeed risk precipitating a crisis when aid inevitably dries up.

Our argument is not that LDCs do not need or cannot afford democracy, any more than our comments about development projects should be interpreted as a claim that these countries did not need schools or roads. The argument is more limited and, we hope, more cogent: Poor countries need democracy, but the democratic institutions and processes they can afford are limited, different from those in use in the established industrial democracies, and probably less than ideal. In trying to promote democracy, donors need to consider the cost to a much greater extent than they do now.

Unfortunately, many democratization programs ignore the issues of affordability and long-term sustainability. Inspired by the sudden democratic transitions in some Eastern European countries, donors approached democracy assistance much in the same way they had initially approached economic assistance—as a heroic, short-term effort to get countries through a sudden takeoff to democracy. If outside help could push a country over initial hurdles and into a democratic transition, donors did not need to worry about the sustainability of their projects. The important thing was to get the initial job done, and donors were willing to pay the cost.

The idea that most (or even many) countries would experience such a takeoff has long since been abandoned. Even the most sanguine democracy promoters now admit that successful elections are at best a first, reversible step that must be followed by the long, hard slog of consolidation. Nevertheless, donors continue to fund programs with little regard for their financial (or even political) sustainability, while recipients make policy decisions with the expectation that the support will last indefinitely. Yet shrinking aid budgets and past experience [End Page 100] with the changing fashions that affect foreign aid suggest that it is extremely unwise to...