What Is Democracy Assistance?

In June of 1982, then-US President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech entitled “Promoting Democracy and Peace” before the British Parliament. Widely remembered as one of the first statements of Reagan’s prodemocracy (and anti-communist) foreign policy, it was also the symbolic start of contemporary democracy promotion in the United States. The speech called for the establishment of assistance organizations similar to German foundations (Stiftungen) linked with their political parties and funded by the West German state. Two years after the President’s speech, the American Political Foundation brought forward a plan to create a National Endowment for Democracy (NED) that would fund democracy promotion organizations affiliated with both major American political parties, as well as an organization affiliated with US business interests and another affiliated with the national labor organization, the AFL-CIO. The NED was eventually established, and its affiliate orga- nizations1 would later begin developing democracy promotion projects. By receiving public funding through donor organizations such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the NED and its affiliate organizations operated as quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations.2

The rationale behind this quasi-autonomous structure was to support political activities abroad aligned with “American interests” in a way that was less politically inflammatory than previous covert activities organized by the CIA. The “arms-length” positioning of the field’s foundational organizations, from the latter’s inception, aimed to carve out a professionalized social space that made them less vulnerable to domestic partisan attacks as well as international questions about their strategic relationship to the US government. In this sense, the new “democracy promotion” organizations affiliated with the NED were more like the growing number of “think tanks” that were becoming prominent in the

Washington, DC, landscape during this period (Medvetz 2012) because they primarily engaged in semi-autonomous research and information distribution rather than the type of development programs they would later embrace. The activities of these democracy promotion organizations at the time were described by US Secretary of State George Shultz in terms of five general “areas”: leadership and training, education, strengthening the institutions of democracy, conveying ideas and information, and developing personal and institutional ties (Shultz 1983). Thus, democracy promotion emerged as a set of practices that, ideally, pursued the realization of the “universal values” of democracy from an American perspective. At the end of the 1980s, however, the number of organizations devoted solely to democracy promotion was relatively small, and their focus on information generation and distribution made them appear, to many critics, as ideologically driven entities and, therefore, informal organs of the government.

In the 1990s, democracy assistance experienced an expansion period driven by a shift in priorities from the “promotion” of democratic ideals to an aid-centered approach focused on technical assistance for the development of democratic institutions. This expansion was gradual for organizations such as the NED and its affiliates, in part because the “democracy promotion” mandate of the 1980s continued to be a target of both political opposition and public skepticism. In fact, in 1993, funding for the NED was nearly cut off by the US House of Representatives, despite the wave of Soviet Bloc countries undergoing democratic transitions in the early 1990s (Carothers 1994). Challenges to the NED came from both sides of the aisle as well as from a range of media outlets.3 Symbolically, democracy promotion represented either an unsavory legacy of Cold War propaganda to critics on the left4 or an expensive and increasingly redundant project to critics on the right. This lack of support may have also reflected a general atmosphere of isolationism in the United States, as democracy promotion and the defense of human rights abroad was a low priority for most respondents to foreign policy opinion polls (Holsti 2000: 159-163).

Despite public criticism, democracy promotion gradually expanded as Western governments and NGOs working on international development came to see “good governance” as a crucial element of any development project. According to a 1994 World Bank report on the importance of “governance”, in order for developing countries to prosper, governments needed to be “strengthened” to the point that they could limit corruption and other abuses of power. The implication, of course, was that this “strengthening” process should be a part of future development projects (Williams and Young 1994).5 As a development goal, good governance was thought to be “[.. .]epitomized by predictable, open, and enlightened policymaking, that is, transparent processes; a bureaucracy imbued with a professional ethos; an executive arm of government accountable for its actions, and a strong civil society participating in public affairs; and all behaving under the rule of law” (World Bank 1994: vii; emphasis mine).6

Following this logic, democracy promotion organizations began targeting local social movements and other civil society organizations for development aid, which aligned them with governmental agencies such as USAID assisting civil society groups in an effort to institutionalize “democratic decentralization” or “democratic local governance” (Blair 2000). For these organizations, which started framing their mandates in terms of democracy “assistance” to emphasize their aid-focused projects, expanding their work with local political parties to local media, human rights, and social justice organizations became a useful way to embrace the broader shift toward framing development as a technical process of “fixing” existing institutions. Symbolically, the rise of governance as a techno-scientific discourse allowed democracy promotion organizations to expand the scope of their expertise by engaging with local leaders connected to an increasingly wide range of “civil society” organizations. While the degree to which these local organizations actually represented the interests of disenfranchised groups was sometimes questionable (Ottaway and Chung 1999: 107), democracy assistance organizations in the United States were able to expand their networks of partners beyond just parliamentarians and political parties. In other words, the rise of governance and civil society as development priorities allowed democracy assistance organizations to define their own expertise beyond democratic elections to include the social processes of democracy.

The gradual move democracy assistance organizations made from information-oriented to aid-oriented mandates7 might suggest that they would also naturally adopt the rules, conventions, and normative frameworks common to the rest of the development community. However, although there was a degree of “institutional isomorphism” (DiMaggio and Powell 1983) that brought these organizations closer to the professional structures of development organizations, they were able to distinguish themselves in the field based on the type of expert knowledge that they produced. Examining the field of democracy assistance using a critical sociology of expert knowledge offers a number of advantages, but the ability to better describe the autonomous position cultivated by these organizations despite their move toward aid-focused activities is especially important because it locates democracy assistance within a field of symbolic power. Drawing on Bourdieu’s (1991) definition of the latter concept,8 it is clear that the process of expert knowledge making in this field facilitates a belief in the necessity of democracy assistance as a techno-scientific field of knowledge. These important symbolic mechanisms are at the core of such organizations’ ability to position themselves in a competitive global field populated by many other aid organizations vying for resources and the power to influence or guide democratization processes.

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