The end of the Cold War marked a change in how we look at the causes of democratization, but it also marked a rise in international efforts to support democratization in other countries. 

Democracy promotion does not refer to foreign efforts to install a new government in a country through either covert or overt means.  I’m not talking about US recognition of Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido as its president and efforts to install him; I’m also not talking about “democratization by imposition” – installing democratic institutions in a country after it is defeated militarily.  This worked well in Europe and Japan after WWII, but with more mixed results in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So what is democracy promotion?  This generally refers to international support for civil society development in other countries.  The U.S., Canada, and European Union all fund these activities.  In the United States, USAID, the Department of State, and the National Endowment for Democracy all support civil society abroad. 

Assistance programs cover a little bit of everything.  There are four broad categories of aid:

  1. Elections.  Through NGOs like IFES, the International Federation of Election Systems, international agencies support the drafting and passage of more transparent election legislation, technology to support fair vote counts (like e-voting), and training for international and domestic election monitors who can issue reports on the quality of elections.  The United States also supports political party development through the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, which are affiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties (but don’t promote a partisan agenda abroad).  NDI tends to focus on training parties in things like data management, fundraising, and door-to-door campaigning, while IRI traditionally focuses on commissioning opinion polls prior to elections and training parties how to use them.  Both are required to provide support to any political party who requests it – they do not support particular parties or candidates in elections.
  • Civil Society.  A wide variety of organizations support civil society, which includes media and labor unions.  This includes training in financial management and legal advocacy, providing digital platforms for civil society organizations to use, and professional training for journalists and labor organizers.  A recent trend has been civic education — training civil society organizations to promote a civic culture by educating the public on the importance of voting and fighting corruption.
  • Human Rights.  Government assistance focuses on training security services on international human rights norms and practices as well as supporting legal aid for victims of abuse and truth and reconciliation commissions in post-conflict countries.
  • Rule of Law.  International programs support anti-corruption efforts, legislative training, and e-government initiatives around the world.

Do they actually work?  The record is pretty mixed.  Little cross-national statistical evidence supports the idea that increasing funding for these activities leads to improvements in political rights in a country – most studies show no effect.  That is not really surprising – these efforts involve relatively small amounts of money on relatively marginal activities.  Successful NGOs need strong financial management practices (amongst other things), but those do not determine whether a country becomes democratic or not. 

These programs can also generate a strong negative reaction from host governments.  Democracy promotion efforts by the Open Society Foundation – funded by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros – are the subject of anti-Semetic conspiracy theories in many countries and have come under particular attack in his home country, where President Orban pushed through legislation limited the ability of NGOs to operate.  Dictators like Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader frequently decry democracy promotion as illegal interference in the internal affairs of their countries and use it to justify arrests of dissidents and propaganda directed against the U.S. elections.

There are times, though, when democratic promotion activities have made a really significant contribution to democratic transitions.  The best example of this was the 2000 transition in Serbia, when the opposition movement Otpor used an IRI-funded opinion poll to demonstrate that its presidential candidate won the election.  Opposition leaders and outside observers both found this to be a critical element of building public support for protests and the removal of Slobodan Milosevic.  Another relative “success story” is democracy assistance to Burma, where funding provided a lifeline to civil society – allowing to maintain some activities while under severe repression and keep a basic organization together while their leaders were under arrest.

And that is probably the best way to think about democracy promotion aid – something that can keep hope for democracy alive under the worst circumstances and that can provide tools to be used when an opportunity to do so arises.

Democracy, by its very nature, is something that citizens of a country have to choose for themselves – other countries can’t give it to you.  Building a stable democracy is also the work of decades, not a few years.  Assistance programs cannot build that with a few million dollars.  They must be careful to “do no harm” – they should not provoke a backlash worse than the initial repression – but can help citizens push for reform of their political systems when opportunities for change arise.