The Challenges for Democratic Development
by Razmik Panossian, Director of Programmes, Rights & Democracy. Paper presented at IPAC's Democratic Development Forum, Fredericton, NB on August 23, 2009
There has been much sober rethinking about the wisdom of “exporting” democracy and freedom since George W Bush left the presidency of the United States. His “Freedom Agenda” is thoroughly discredited, and the US seems to be entering a phase of “realism.” At the same time, many people who work in the field of democracy promotion have come to realise that democratic development (DD) is much more complex than elections, regime change, and external support. In this presentation, I would like to provide a broad perspective of the challenges democratic development will face in the coming few years, linking these to the Deployment for Democratic Development project (DDD).
I. What is Democratic Development?
There is not a fixed definition of DD – nor should there be. Some emphasise the procedural aspect (e.g. regular elections, a sitting parliament), others the substantive aspects (democratic practices and culture, respect for rights). Increasingly the link is being made between DD and human rights (an approach Rights & Democracy has pioneered for twenty years; in our view, democratic development should take place through human rights).
In a recent article, Thomas Carothers has highlighted a very useful categorisation of democracy assistance. He points out that there are two overall approaches (with some overlap): “political” (mostly the US model), and “developmental” (mostly the European model). The political approach is defined as:
an approach [that] proceeds from a relatively narrow conception of democracy—focused, above all, on elections and political liberties—and a view of democratization as a process of political struggle in which democrats work to gain the upper hand in society over non-democrats. It directs aid at core political processes and institutions—especially elections, political parties and politically oriented civil groups.
The developmental approach is defined as:
an approach [that] rests on a broader notion of democracy, one that encompasses concerns about equality and justice and the concept of democratization as a slow, iterative process of change involving an interrelated set of political and socioeconomic developments. It favors democracy aid that pursues incremental, long-term change in wide range of political and socioeconomic sectors, frequently emphasizing governance and the building of a well-functioning state. 
Canada’s approach to date has been closer to the “developmental” approach, although that might change with the possible creation of a new democracy promotion institution that the government is currently considering.
These are a few of the constituent elements of democratic development (in no particular order):
- a vibrant and independent civil society (citizen participation in public life)
- free, fair and competitive elections
- accountability and transparency, including access to information on decision making for public policy
- rule of law and a judiciary that is independent
- respect for human rights
- division of powers (legislature that is independent from executive)
- civilian control of the armed forces.
If these elements a re reduced to their core components, three pillars emerge based on which the house of democracy is built: state institutions, civil society, and political parties – all of which must be inspired by democratic principles and practices.
A holistic approach is needed to do effective democratic development; and herein lies the tension – and challenge. By doing everything (a shopping list approach), one could end up losing focus and effectiveness. The point is to do a broad and comprehensive analysis, but to prioritise programming and focus on realistic goals, with a clear division of labour between various organisations that do democratic development.
II. Role of External Agents in Democratic Development
Democratic Development is principally an endogenous process. There is some role for external support, but democratisation largely comes about through internal dynamics. And it takes time. It cannot be “exported,” replicated, imposed. The processes that often open the way to democratisation are generated through the relationship between the political elite and citizen participation; that is to say, the interaction between an opening at the “top” and pressure from “below.”
In this process, outside actors providing democracy support can play a fourfold role:
- Capacity building (e.g. material support)
- Training, coaching, facilitating (e.g. intellectual support)
- Advocacy (e.g. for human rights issues nationally or in international fora)
- Networking (e.g. north-south, south-south, south-international organisations)
The DDD programme is centred on the first two, with some elements of networking.
There are five principal challenges democratic development, as advocated by external agents, will face in the foreseeable future.
First, the third phase of democratisation (that began in 1974) has ended, and the current global geopolitical realities – US realism in foreign policy and Chinese ascendency in global politics – will make it very unlikely for anything resembling the “freedom agenda” to emerge. Consequently, democratic development as a whole will shift focus from changing authoritarian states to consolidating democracy in states that are somewhat advanced in their transitions. Are there consequences in this for the DDD project in terms of where experts should be sent?
Second, there is a discernable global pushback on democracy promotion and human rights. It comes from the usual authoritarian states (e.g. Cuba, Iran, Egypt), but also from countries in “stalled” transitions which have become semi-authoritarian (e.g. Russia, Venezuela). This dynamic is quite visible at the UN Human Rights Council. And it particularly affects women’s rights. In this context, democratic development has to assume more of the role of “watchdog,” strengthening civil society – as opposed to institution building – so democratic development is sustained when faced with repressive measures. Should the DDD project assume that institution building/strengthening is always positive for democratic development?
Third, the current global economic crisis, and the shrinking budgets that are to come to pay for the deficits currently being incurred for stimulus packages, are likely to have a detrimental impact on foreign assistance, including budgets for initiatives on democratic development. Of the 1.1 trillion dollars stimulus package the G20 promised at its April 2009 meeting in London, only 50 billion dollars, or 5%, were earmarked for the poorest 49 countries in the world. As developed countries scale back on foreign aid to pay for their deficits, initiatives in democratic governance are surely to suffer.
Fourth, doing democratic development in ethnically divided societies is particularly challenging. Providers of democratic development support from the “North” tend to be “blind” to such ethnic and tribal divisions, often not realising that they infuse institutions, civil society dynamics and of course political processes. In some contexts, foreign aid exacerbates such divisions. Democratisation literature is increasingly taking note of this complexity, but practitioners lag behind. It is absolutely crucial to understand the ethno-political context of a country if democratic development support is to be effective. The DDD project must take these dynamics into account.
The final challenge is one that bedevils us all – and that is the measurement challenge. How does one measure success or impact? It is not difficult to do this at the output level, but at the broader impact level it is very complicated. And yet, in the current environment of development assistance, democratic development has to show not only specific results but also impact. Perhaps one way of addressing the issue is to develop a set of tools that takes a long term view, that measures human rights, political processes, institutional capacity, etc., in increments of five years, and with modest expectations. For the DDD project, this is particularly challenging: how to show that the Canadian expertise put at the service of a developing country had an impact on the country’s overall democratic development?
Democratic development is currently being rethought as a foreign policy tool, and as part of the wider development process. These five challenges are shaping the debates. One thing can be said with some certainty: democratic development is being reshaped in light of the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences in “exporting” democracy – its legitimacy having been tarnished due to the ideological (and militaristic) zeal. Probably a more “quiet” and a more “developmental” approach will prevail.
III. The Role of Canada
To date, Canada’s approach has been mostly “developmental,” with some elements of the “political” approach to democratic development. The new democracy support institution being considered by the government is purported to be more “political,” likely focussing on political party development.
The DDD project is one of the main tools in Canada’s efforts, and it is largely modeled based on developmental principles rather than political considerations.
What DDD has done so far is illustrative of some of the broader points I raised above on democratic development. Just a few examples:
In Guinea Bissau technical support was provided in electoral observation, and women’s participation in electoral processes was strengthened.
The judiciary was trained in Bangladesh to make it more transparent and impartial.
Technical support to that the Department of Foreign Affairs in Indonesia was provided so that it would become more accountable to the public, and as such encourage and enable the participation of civil society in the Department’s policy planning and decision-making processes.
The initiative in the Ivory Coast centred on technical support. It trained the trainers of the Secrétariat National à la Gouvernance et au Renforcement des Capacités par Décret and civil society organizations to better undertake research and collect information, to provide tools for the promotion of human rights and conflict prevention.
Activities that promoted media independence and accountability, which will lead to the redrafting of a more democratic broadcast bill, were carried out in Guyana.
Burkina Faso’s National Strategy on Microfinance was improved through training on its gender approach to microfinancing. The DDD initiative helped to monitor the impact of the national strategy on the economic development of vulnerable populations, namely women, addressed their financial services needs, and ensured their participation in decision-making processes.
I would like to end with a quote from a paper that Lorne Craner and Kenneth Wollack jointly published, the respective presidents of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), entitled “New Directions for Democracy Promotion.” It is a long quote, but it does encapsulate the philosophy behind democratic development:
… democracy building is about much more than elections, which are a prerequisite but insufficient condition for democracy. The health and extent of democracies are judged as much on the basis of events and changes between elections, with democratic reformers and democracy assistance organizations working in the trenches on seemingly mundane matters: building political parties that are internally democratic, open, and responsive to constituencies; helping parliaments conduct pluralist political debate that includes public input and leads to legislation and executive oversight; assisting civil society organizations that engage in policy advocacy and accountability activities; and supporting journalism, the rule of law, civic education, and citizen participation—including women and minorities—in government and public affairs. Empowering citizens to exercise their sovereign rights between and during elections is the hallmark of democracy assistance (p.10).
The DDD initiative is precisely trying to do this, quietly, without much fanfare, but addressing the mundane “nuts and bolts” of democracy building. Technical assistance on gender budgeting, procurement policies and legal reform might not be “sexy,” but they are indispensible spokes in the wheel of democratic development.
 A notable example of this rethinking is James Traub’s book, The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did). NY, 2008.
 Thomas Carothers, “Democracy Assistance: Political vs. Developmental?” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 20 (1), January 2009, p.5.
 Jennifer Welsh alludes to a similar point in her review of the SCFAID report on democracy promotion, “Promoting Democracy Abroad”, Literary Review of Canada, vol. 15 (10), December 2007.
 See for example, Wolfgang Merkel, “Embedded and Defective Democracies”, Democratization, Vol.11 (5) December 2004; and Thomas Carothers, “How Democracies Emerge, the Sequencing Fallacy”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 18 (1), January 2007.