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How Not to Build Democracy | Focus

Development assistance is one way the United States can help other countries to democratize. But it could use a rethink.

If you’re a loyal reader of Spectacles (you should be) you might recall reading some kind of call for the United States to develop an improved pro-democratic agenda in foreign policy, in particular improved development aid for countries that are undergoing democratic transitions. Whether discussing geopolitics more broadly, or specific cases in Tunisia, Haiti, and Afghanistan, we’ve argued a few times that the United States has a fairly poor track record of actually helping countries transition to democracy. But we’ve also asserted that the US shouldn’t abandon those goals.

In broad strokes, that’s a fairly obvious position for us to take. Our editorial stance is that liberal democracy, while imperfect, hasn’t been surpassed by any other form of political or economic organization, presently or in history. If everyone were able to enjoy individual rights and freedoms, representative government, rule of law, free but regulated markets, and high-quality public social goods, the world would be a much happier place.

But once we ask ourselves how we might get to that point, everything starts to get a lot more complicated. The two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown, not for the first time, that attempting to impose a way of life or a political model by occupation and force often leads to catastrophic and backward results. The notable but exceptional cases of Japan and Germany after the second world war notwithstanding, it’s probably for the best if that strategy becomes a relic of the  past.

The favored method of democracy promotion among today’s liberal internationalists—often wary of repeating the errors of Afghanistan and Iraq—is known as “development assistance,” usually some form of economic aid to the citizens and governments of low and middle income countries. Development agencies can be based within states (like the US Agency for International Development), internationally (like the World Bank), or as private non-profit organizations, but all of them undertake projects in low and middle income nations to assist their socioeconomic and political development. Under the banner of “international development” fall technical projects like vaccination campaigns and road-building, grants for civil society organizations, and funding and advice for government bodies to improve their performance.

Development is a somewhat controversial area across the political spectrum. Those on the left often see it as a vehicle for the spread of “neoliberal” economic policies, an attempt to nudge aid-receiving countries towards privatization and liberalization, and away from what they see as a more comprehensive emancipation of oppressed peoples. Insofar as they are interested in development aid, they are looking for a more wholesale redistribution of resources from the global north to the global south. For its part, some corners of the political right are concerned that development aid—especially through international bodies like the World Bank—is a sign of a creeping “world state,” a bureaucratically managed planetary government that overrides the vital sovereignty of distinct nation-states.

As a liberal democrat, I don’t fully agree with either of these views, although I do think that both of them—to varying degrees—contain kernels of truth. Yet, few people outside those fringes seem to look very closely at development in general. It’s a fairly opaque topic unless you’re pretty plugged-in, meaning that most American citizens are ill-positioned to respond to critics or judge how their elected leaders handle the promotion of democracy.

I hope—by drawing on prior knowledge and from a book called Development Aid Confronts Politics—this may provide that instrumental starting point for you to better understand the conventional approach to promoting democracy and its challenges.

International development emerged as an attractive foreign policy following World War II and the successes of the Marshall Plan. The rebuilding of Europe and the apparent need to demonstrate the virtues of democratic capitalism as an alternative to Soviet Communism led academics and policymakers to a crucial idea. It could be both morally right and strategically prudent to offer assistance to the now- or soon-to-be independent colonies of disbanding European empires.

Among the theories of development at the time, one of the most well-known and popular among American policymakers was “modernization theory.” Modernization theory dictated that nations achieved democracy at a certain stage of socioeconomic development, in particular by undergoing urbanization and industrialization. The establishment of a prosperous middle class would lead to demands for representation, and the rest would follow.

The appeal of modernization theory as the basis for policymaking is obvious. For one, it essentially asserts that all of the things we’d like to see a society have—in particular prosperity and political rights—follow from one another. For another, it lends itself to relatively simple technical solutions. The line between spending public money on schools, roads, hospitals, and factories, to a modernized economy and democratic political society is clear and straight. If that was all it took to get capitalist democracies off the ground and running smoothly, fantastic.

The results of applying modernization theory, however, were less than stellar. Building a school is one thing, developing a comprehensive education system that is well managed by a central government with a competent education ministry is something entirely different.It isn’t simply a matter of investing and pulling metaphorical policy levers (literacy: up!).

Moreover, many American policymakers put geopolitics before democratization and in turn supported anti-Communist authoritarian leaders. Those leaders engaged in modernization projects with mixed success, but the “democracy” aspect of development policies was ditched.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the development community’s approach shifted from a drive to impose modernity from above to a focus on stimulating the growth of free markets as a means of generating prosperity. Stable fiscal policy, balanced budgets, trade liberalization, and the privatization of state-managed economic sectors became the order of the day.

Insofar as democracy was on the horizon, it was thought to be far off or a potentially beneficial side effect. Potentially, I note, because for some American policymakers it was thought that democracy might actually be a detriment to sound economic policy—the money-grubbing masses, being from countries considered culturally backwards, might just try to redistribute all the wealth to themselves.

This approach, too, failed. For reasons that initially befuddled development experts, governments in low- or middle-income countries often failed to implement their preferred policies, or, if they did, those policies didn’t generate the desired results.

But it also led to a heightened awareness of certain key obstacles, which are best illustrated through a quick thought experiment. Say, hypothetically, that there’s a road development project under way in a low-income country, with the objective of connecting rural agricultural hinterlands to an urban center. A team of policymakers is brought on to design a system of roads, which it brings to the central national government, along with funds to execute the program. As far as things go, the plan is fine on a technical level, and the country’s interior ministry says it’s taking on the responsibility, but for some reason the project is never completed.

As it turns out, the country’s leadership class wants to keep rural agricultural workers excluded from political and economic participation, in order to maintain low prices and to keep potentially unrestful urbanites (who can more easily coordinate political resistance due to proximity) happy. The institutions of the country—the interior ministry, in this case—function in ways that mean even the most well-designed policies won’t work.

Towards the end of the 20th century and over the course of the 21st, experts and development practitioners have come to better understand that politics and political conflicts matter. A new consensus emerged that there was an intricate connection between governance, economic growth, and political participation. If the agricultural workers in the above hypothetical were more able to participate in political life, the central government would be constrained in its capacity to treat them differently than urban residents. In turn, it might build the recommended roads, contributing to the economic life of the polity.

But as nice as that sounds, and as good a reason as we have to believe that all of those good things—participation, high quality governance, and growth—are linked, what’s less clear is how. It’s not so easy to say which of those things comes first, and the obvious causal link in the hypothetical is rarely so simple in practice.

To frame it another way: the liberal democratic social contract was not hammered out in a neat and linear fashion anywhere, and none of today’s liberal democracies took the same path to their present state. There are commonalities and lessons that we can draw across cases, but among the most important might be just how messy the process of democratization is. It would be wonderful if all of the key stakeholders in a democratizing society could sit down in a room and write a mutually agreeable constitution together. But the fundamental questions that are at hand in such a case—Who gets to participate in political life? What rights will citizens enjoy? How will resources be distributed?—are almost never resolved in such a manner. Democracies aren’t established democratically.

Of course, it’s not fair to development experts to accuse them of adhering to something so naive as the idea that sitting down and hammering out a neat social contract is the end of the story. But even today, after years of genuine self-reflection and dedicated study,  something of that idealism appears to still be at work. Many aid organizations refrain from getting “too political,” seeking consensus rather than conflict which, while ugly, might be productive in the long run. They face a dilemma in confronting repressive governments, between working with reprehensible leaders or risking support for opposition.

At the same time, Western-backed organizations often refrain from encouraging or endorsing civil disobedience, strikes, or other controversial modes of mass political mobilization (unless of course, the country in question is considered a geopolitical foe). They encourage “political participation,” but often shy away from policy programs. Again, however, it’s crucial to note that these controversial approaches—civil disobedience, mass labor actions, uncompromising resistance in the face of repression—are in fact the very methods of bargaining that have allowed today’s liberal democracies to compose the social contracts they have today.

So, what works, then? There’s no one-size-fits all solution to development and democratization. But the history and present of international development offer some direction. First of all, who receives aid matters. It’s a political choice that citizens in donor countries should strive to be conscious of as they watch how their political leaders choose to pursue development. Second, we know that participation from the bottom up (democracy) and the development of an aid-receiving state’s capacity (institutions) matter.

I’ll add another thought, although it’s more a matter of my own opinion than something from the academic literature I’ve read. There’s a powerful case to be made for a concerted political effort to devote more spending to development aid. Building a democratic state is highly resource intensive, often beyond the means of low and middle income countries. In addition, more money means more room to experiment, more room for innovative citizens in aid-receiving countries to develop the methods and leadership skills that may someday be decisive in democratization. We don’t know exactly what works, but being well-equipped to try is absolutely crucial.

In a period of democratic recession, it’s crucial that liberal democrats sharpen their understanding of how democracy emerges and what policy mechanisms prosperous democratic states can employ to help it along. We live in a world of enormous material abundance, rapid communication, and a body of knowledge both larger and more accessible than ever before. As ugly and messy as the birth of democracy almost certainly needs to be, there’s good reason to believe that the lessons of the past can’t at least reduce the frictions of democratic transitions today.

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