Democracy assistance – what works?

Democracy assistance – what works?

Academic analyst Arthur Goldsmith questions some of the premises of “undifferentiated democracy promotion”, highlighting the security risks of partial democracies and the limitations of external actors as agents of change. Rather than making the world safe for partial democracy, he argues, democracy assistance should be customized to suit countries’ particular circumstances:

There should be a subtle shift in orientation, from campaigning for democracy to supporting it, taking cues from local democratic forces and avoiding one-sided efforts to push democratization in directions a foreign country is unprepared to go.

One might ask how, in the absence of democracy, it is possible to determine what direction a country’s citizens would like to go. Democracy assistance practitioners will also be quick to point out that their work is driven from the bottom-up, reflecting the needs, interests and aspirations of citizens and activists on the ground rather than the strategic objectives of politicians, technocrats or diplomats. 

James Traub, author of a recent book on democracy promotion, makes a similar point, responding to John Brademas, a former chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy. Non-governmental democracy assistance groups have greater credibility, flexibility and expertise than their governmental counterparts, he notes. Government agencies are often “ill-suited to carry out an ambitious policy of democracy promotion,” a recent analysis suggests.

It’s a view echoed by General Wesley K. Clark, the former NATO supreme commander, former NED board member and someone mooted as National Security Adviser in the next US Administration:

The kind of change we want to promote-and that will promote our security-is for nations to work toward limited, pluralistic governments that impose the rule of law but also respect individual rights and freedoms, systems in which the heavy hand of the state is restrained by respect for freedoms of the press, association, and privacy. Without these, holding elections doesn’t help us all that much. The National Endowment for Democracy., the National Democratic Institute, and the other nongovernmental organizations that export these political values are useful, even vital, but must be seen in a larger context. It takes a couple of generations or longer to change a culture, as we Americans should understand from our own experience in Reconstruction after the Civil War. There are no quick fixes.