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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 20-25

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Debating the Transition Paradigm

Retaining the Human Dimension

Kenneth Wollack

In "The End of the Transition Paradigm," Thomas Carothers admonishes the democracy-promotion community for continuing to adhere to a naïve and outdated notion of the democratization process in countries in political transition. This "transition paradigm," according to Carothers, has led policy makers to improperly assess political situations in many countries and has resulted in inappropriate or ineffective democracy-assistance programs.

Once again, Carothers has made a serious contribution to the policy discussion on an important topic. While those of us in the democracy-promotion community are not always in agreement with all of Carothers's views, we are fortunate to benefit from such constructive criticism. His assessments often spark much useful discussion within the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and similar organizations. Nevertheless, a number of Carothers's recent criticisms call for examination.

At first, I was tempted simply to concur with Carothers's critique but then argue that experienced democracy practitioners like NDI are innocent of the sins he enumerates. It is not my aim, however, to defend specific programs or organizations like NDI, but rather to offer a more general defense of democracy practitioners and funders. For the model of "democracy promoters" that Carothers presents is often as simplistic as the paradigm he suggests they blindly follow. It would be unhelpful to this debate (and exceedingly self-serving) to try to set organizations like NDI aside and join Carothers in pointing a finger at a group of anonymous democracy promoters.

The crux of Carothers's argument is that democracy promoters assume that many countries are in a transition to democracy despite clear [End Page 20] evidence to the contrary. Given that most transitional countries actually fall, according to Carothers, into a vast "gray zone" between dictatorship and liberal democracy, internationally supported democracy- assistance programs in these countries are naïve at best and misguided at worst. In their adherence to this false "transition paradigm," democracy promoters, he asserts, impose a simplistic and overly optimistic conceptual order on a complex problem. To the extent that this happens, Carothers should be commended for pointing out a problem. Organizations like NDI have long opposed the very simplistic frameworks and templates that he describes.

Yet democracy promoters may not be as misguided as Carothers claims. Democracy promotion is a cause-oriented mission that requires a certain level of optimism and enthusiasm, but this should not disguise the often hard-headed realism that goes into program planning and work. The majority of democracy-assistance organizations see democracy promotion as but one part of a mix of foreign-aid and development initiatives that includes economic and socioeconomic components. NDI and others are well aware of the complexity and volatility of political situations around the world. We work to identify specific country challenges and to design programs that take culture, tradition, and history into consideration. We also recognize the so-called "next generation" issues to which Carothers refers. These include anticorruption initiatives, economic reform, political finance reform, political party renewal and modernization, and information technology. Additionally, the encouragement of popular political participation among women, youth, and minorities and increased communication between citizens and elected officials are necessary to reduce apathy and disaffection among voters.

In reality, those of us who carry out democracy programs have never considered ourselves to be operating under a "transition paradigm," but even if we did, the situation would probably be more benign than Carothers makes it out to be. The real danger is not so much an inexact assessment of the state of democracy in a particular country, but the risk of poorly conceived and executed programs. While Carothers is right that democracy promotion, like any profession, is subject to mistakes and misjudgments, he fails to provide evidence for the larger claim that a faulty paradigm has undermined the whole endeavor. He argues that the transition paradigm is "retarding the evolution of democracy assistance," yet he does not address specific cases in which this may have occurred.

Carothers broadly criticizes several documents from the U.S...