The State of Democracy Assistance

The State of Democracy Assistance

Democracy assistance or “promotion” has been a core form of U.S. and European engagement in the developing world for decades. A component of foreign assistance spending, “democracy aid” includes providing financial support and/or technical guidance to central governments and civil society actors “working either to strengthen an emerging democracy or to foster conditions that could lead to democracy’s rise where a nondemocratic regime holds power.”

Broadly conceived, the foreign policy logic underpinning transatlantic democracy assistance is that democratic (or less authoritarian) states are — over the long haul — more stable, better allies, and more viable trading partners.

For democracy and those external actors seeking to help spread it across the globe, this year was a mixed bag; with setbacks in countries seeking transitions away from authoritarian rule juxtaposed with promising developments on the supply side of democracy assistance.

Troubles within the transatlantic democracies aside, elsewhere across the globe there was more “backsliding” — according to Freedom House this was the eighth year in a row where more countries (54) experienced declines in freedom than those which garnered gains (40). The countries which regressed are not insignificant for transatlantic interests and include Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Indonesia, among others. This relapse was readily apparent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which saw the worst civil rights scores of any region. From the extra-legal ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to renewed clashes in Libya, indigenous attempts to transition regional states toward less autocratic forms of government experienced setbacks. Transatlantic efforts to support these processes came under fire for a lack of coordination, incoherent strategy, or insufficient resources.

American public support for engagement abroad in general—and democracy assistance particularly — also took a hit in 2013. 52 percent of Americans agreed their country should “let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” according to Pew. Though never high to begin with, U.S. public support for democracy promotion as “a top policy goal” dipped to 18 percent from 29 percent in 2001. 63 percent polled said having stable regimes in MENA was more important than democracy taking root there.

U.S. rhetorical support and funding for democracy aid seemed to roughly approximate the sentiments of taxpayers who bankroll such efforts abroad. Reflecting on U.S. interests in MENA during a speech to the UN General Assembly in September, for example, President Obama listed “democracy and human rights” fifth behind confronting external aggression against allies, ensuring the free flow of energy, dismantling terrorist networks, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This contrasts somewhat from spring 2011, when Obama said “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.”

Following news that the U.S. would reduce by $160 million democracy assistance dollars for MENA, some said the Administration was “abandoning” democracy in the region and downgrading democracy promotion as a foreign policy tool. Though funding indeed declined, these statements are overblown. Mitigating terrorist threats and safeguarding energy flows in MENA were rightly always considered more vital to U.S. national security than helping democracy take root there; and the administration’s calibration toward “nation building at home” tracks prior statecraft patterns where years expending blood and treasure abroad render domestic stakeholders weary of such endeavors, and those they elect (generally) follow suit. The U.S. perhaps moderated its focus on democracy assistance abroad but by no means permanently tossed it from the foreign policy toolkit.

On the “supply side” of democracy aid, two developments signal that — rhetoric and funding decreases aside — the transatlantic democracies remain committed to supporting democracy abroad in the coming years.

First, the European Union launched the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). Currently focused on the EU’s strategic neighborhood — from Ukraine to Lebanon — EED is a grant-making foundation that draws on experience from member states in order to “promote the European values of freedom and democracy” in order to help “advance and encourage deep and sustainable democracy in transition countries and in societies struggling for democratization.”

Two factors make the EED’s launch a notable development. First is its leaner operational platform comprised of “flexible, non-bureaucratic and dedicated procedures that are tailored to the needs and demands on the ground.” In practice and relative to the extant democracy aid donor landscape, this could translate into less red tape for grant-seekers, faster turnaround times for allocating financial support, and monies focused on activities in target countries rather than home office overhead. And second is the EED’s mandate to support to a wide range of pro-democracy actors, with the sole/core criteria being they “adhere to core democratic values, and human rights as well as subscribe to principles of non-violence.” Where many Western donors are hamstrung by stove-piped funding streams earmarked for a specific area/actor, the Endowment has liberty to support actors ranging from “pro-democratic movements” and youth activists to newspapers facing forced closure. It remains to be seen if EED’s model will bear intended fruit; nonetheless, its expansive mandate and nimble operational structure should position it well to make impacts moving forward.

The second significant development occurred in Washington, where the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) rolled out its new strategy for supporting democracy abroad. USAID’s “Strategy on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance” builds on lessons learned from the Agency’s prior engagements and lays out a coherent framework for Washington to constructively support human dignity and freedom across the world. Importantly, it elevates human rights as a key component to USAID’s strategy and creates staff positions to ensure marginalized persons’ considerations (gender, LGBT, and others) are integrated across all programming streams. USAID remains the largest bilateral donors for democracy- and human rights-focused programming and the new Strategy will help the leading player in this sphere continue to make positive impacts.

The transatlantic policy communities should look for three developments in 2014.

First, there will be no rapid reversals on 2013’s democratic backsliding. This is particularly true for the Middle East, where a long road lies ahead for polities reconciling religious principles with pillars of representative governance to chart the most appropriate path for their peoples. It now seems clear that what many hoped would take two years will likely take two decades or more.

Second, funding decreases aside, the U.S. and Europe will by no means jettison democracy aid to the foreign policy trash bin. Rather, and building from new strategies such as that of USAID, the transatlantic allies will continue and perhaps inject new energy into support for democratic processes and activists abroad as a strategic tool. In so doing, however, democracy aid providers will continue to confront the evolving and expanding “backlash” against their efforts by less-than-democratic governments who have more to lose than gain from democracy taking root within their borders.

And finally, the European Endowment for Democracy may swell its role in the democracy aid world. Pending outcomes of its initial interventions, EED’s modest budget (€6.2 million) should increase and perhaps attract allocations from the U.K., France, and Italy, who have yet to pony up cash for the fund.

This piece was originally published in "the State of the Transatlantic World."