External actors in democratic transitions: avoiding funding frenzies

barbarahaigExternal actors, including democratic states, non-governmental organizations and private groups can make a significant contribution by assisting transitioning countries to succeed with reforms, and develop political pluralism, rule of law, and accountability. But they should not be allowed to eclipse local actors, says Barbara Haig, Deputy to the President for Policy & Strategy at the National Endowment for Democracy.

External actors play an important role in assisting transitions to democracy by lending political and material support and know-how. They can help constrain the impact of spoilers (both internal and external), and cushion the blow of painful reforms with incentives and rewards. They can also serve as neutral conveners by providing a space for competitors and adversaries to resolve conflicts or disputes and reach consensus on policy or strategy.

Since the transitions of the early 1990s, donor countries and non-governmental groups grew confident about their ability to fund and in other ways support democratic transitions. While complicated and tumultuous, these transitions offered a relatively hospitable environment for external actors who wanted to help. But it is important to remember that prior to the breakthroughs in Central Europe, only modest material and technical support was provided to democracy activists, who shaped the course of their own actions and strategies. Donors, such as the NED, served as a support mechanism for their work, but they conducted their own negotiations – with outgoing authoritarian powers in the form of ‘pacted transitions’ and with democratic partners or rivals to resolve tensions over strategy and tactics. It was not until the transitions were underway that government donors entered in a big way, along with the contractors they employed. While much U.S. government funding was driven by political processes and short-term objectives, private foundations lent longer term support to build institutions and capacity within civil society, including political parties.

Sensitivity to sovereignty

Fast forward to more recent and current transitions—where the environment for support is not always hospitable and can turn very nasty. Donors and foreign implementers must be attuned to the possibility that, as we’ve seen in Egypt and elsewhere, national pride and sensitivity to issues of sovereignty can rapidly consume a society and distract local actors from the tasks at hand. Social media can quickly spoil reputations and distort the picture. It may not always be wise to quickly ramp up democracy and civil society funding in a manner which could appear to be driven more by showing how involved we are in the transition rather than how to nimbly respond to what is practical and can be effective. Awarding substantial sums to new or weak organizations can pull them away from their potential constituencies with ruinous effect.

Over time, entrenched powers—even Western allies—realize that they can gain prestige in their region by pushing back against a “Western agenda.” And in many cases citizens can be stirred up by appealing to feelings of cultural or religious nationalism under the guise of preventing violations of national “sovereignty”. . Such trends can actually derail transitions, particularly if they turn violent.

For those of us who have engaged with many transitions over the years, there is a disturbingly familiar pattern. Donor resources are ramped up and hordes of consultants and contractors descend on the capital city of the country undergoing transition. Endless strategy and proposal writing meetings take place and eat up the time of people who need to be preparing and organizing their efforts. Rents go up and talented locals are lured away from their poor NGOs with high salaries offered by foreign contractors. The air is sucked out of local organizations and coalitions as outside groups with resources strive to pull locals into new coalitions for voter education and monitoring that is in their work plan. The critical role of political parties can be undermined if all key functions and resources are directed toward civil society.

Donor countries and foreign organizations should not make the mistake of taking too direct a role in building governance. Rather, indigenous civil society and political parties, as well as professional information outlets, however incipient, must be vested with these responsibilities since it is these actors that will ultimately be responsible for ensuring democratic governance. As these organizations will be the ones to hold institutional bodies accountable and generate new ideas and proposals, they should not be supplanted, but strengthened with the help of foreign actors. A transition is a long-term process, and needs local capacity to generate strategies for capable action over the long-term. Endless series of trainings and short-term project activities do not produce lasting results.

There is no question that those countries which are able should help transitioning countries to succeed with reforms, and develop political pluralism, rule of law, and accountability. But transitions should not be allowed to become opportunities for frenzies of funding in which proposal writing professionals take control.

Digital democracy: combatting internet censorship

FHDIGITALWORLD“Over the next decade, approximately five billion people will become connected to the Internet. The biggest increases will be in societies that, according to the human rights group Freedom House, are severely censored,” Google’s Eric E. Schmidt and Jared Cohen write for The New York Times:

The details aren’t pretty. In Russia, the government has blocked tens of thousands of dissident sites; at times, all WordPress blogs and Russian Wikipedia have been blocked. In Vietnam, a new law called Decree 72 makes it illegal to digitally distribute content that opposes the government, or even to share news stories on social media. And in Pakistan, sites that were available only two years ago — like Tumblr, Wikipedia and YouTube — are increasingly replaced by unconvincing messages to “Surf Safely.”….

And while the technologies of repression are a multibillion-dollar industry, the tools to measure and assess digital repression get only a few million dollars in government and private funding. Private and academic centers like the Citizen Lab in Toronto are building detection tools, but we are still in the early days of mapping the reach of digital censorship.

A vibrant community of engineers from San Francisco to Beijing has collaborated on circumvention technologies to shield dissidents from surveillance, including Tor, they note:

Trust is perhaps the most fundamental issue. In Iran, online bazaars sell services that promise secure access. Yet rumors swirl that these services are covertly provided by the Iranian government, and can be monitored or terminated at any time.

Scalability is another problem. One popular approach, virtual private networks, allow users in a repressively censored place like Syria to “proxy” the connections through a computer in a more open place like Norway. But when thousands of users connect to a single intermediary, the repressive government notices, and shuts them down.

The final challenge is usability. Engineers can build sophisticated algorithms, but they’re useful only if a member of, say, the Kurdish minority in Iran can figure out how to install them on her low-bandwidth phone.

“None of these challenges are new. What is new is the possibility to overcome them — if we make the right public and private investments,” they write:

For example, software using peer-to-peer algorithms lets users route an Internet connection through another computer without having to go through a V.P.N., helping to address the trust and scalability issues…..Obfuscation techniques — when one thing is made to look like another — are also a path forward. A digital tunnel from Iran to Norway can be disguised as an ordinary Skype call. …..Finally, advances in user-experience design practices are a big, if not obvious, boon. ….

“Much of the fight against censorship has been led by the activists of the Internet freedom movement,” they observe. ‘We can join this open source community, whether we are policy makers, corporations or individuals. Money, coding skills or government grants can all make a difference.”

Eric E. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and Jared Cohen, the director of Google Ideas, are the authors of “The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses and Our Lives.”


U.S. feeling sharp elbows of Putin’s conservative Comintern

Credit: The Spectator

Credit: The Spectator

It’s been a generation or so since Russians were in the business of shaping the destiny of the world, and most of us have forgotten how good they used to be at it. For much of the last century Moscow fuelled — and often won — the West’s ideological and culture wars, notes analyst Owen Matthews:

In the 1930s, brilliant operatives like Willi Muenzenberg convinced ‘useful idiots’ to join anti-fascist organisations that were in reality fronts for the Soviet-backed Communist International. Even in the twilight years of the Soviet Union the KGB was highly successful at orchestrating nuclear disarmament movements and trade unionism across the West.

“Now Russia is decisively back as an ideological force in the world — this time as a champion of conservative values,” he writes for The [UK] Spectator:

A recent report by the Centre for Strategic Communications, a Kremlin-connected think tank, neatly summarized Putin’s ambition: it’s entitled ‘Putin: World Conservatism’s New Leader’. The report argues that large, silent majorities around the world favor traditional family values over feminism and gay rights — and that Putin is their natural leader. ‘The Kremlin apparently believes it has found the ultimate wedge issue to unite its supporters and divide its opponents, both in Russia and the West, and garner support in the developing world,’ says Radio Free Europe’s Brian Whitmore. ‘They seem to believe they have found the ideology that will return Russia to its rightful place as a great power with a messianic mission and the ability to win hearts and minds globally.’

As a result of the Kremlin’s political assertiveness, the U.S. is feeling Putin’s sharp elbows in Ukraine and elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“American presidents, understandably for strategic reasons, want to forge a relationship with Russia that goes beyond Cold War paradigms,” said Damon Wilson, a former Bush administration official now at the Atlantic Council, a think tank.

“But inevitably, they are dragged back to the reality that they are dealing with an interlocutor that isn’t prepared to be a partner in that effort,” he said. “If you look at Russian foreign policy it is a negative agenda…..The issue is restoring Russian influence by checking American power.”

The realization that Moscow views the world in terms of “us or them” has been slow to dawn on the Obama administration, but is becoming more apparent to White House and national security officials, foreign-policy experts say.

The administration gave Moscow “every favorable interpretation, every benefit of the doubt” in its first years, said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“Even in the administration, they are beginning to understand this is not a question of Putin’s mood,” Mr. Aron said. “This is the geostrategic framework that Putin operates. This is how he understands re-establishing Russian greatness.”

Rebuilding Russia’s position on the world stage and its dominance in countries formerly part of the Soviet Union have been a key part of Mr. Putin’s agenda. Despite U.S. insistence that geopolitics isn’t a “them-or-us,” zero-sum game, Mr. Putin has made it clear he doesn’t agree.

Obama administration officials reject the idea that Mr. Putin is gaining the upper hand, noting the problems faced by the governments of Syria and Ukraine—both allies of Moscow.

“Neither of those situations advance Russia’s interests in any way,” a senior administration official said. “If anything, these and other events demonstrate that people want democracy, they reject corruption, and they want individual opportunity and integration into the global economy.”

U.S. officials expressed dismay  that Moscow has operated in secret in Ukraine. “They have not been transparent about what they’ve been doing in the Ukraine,” a senior State Department official said. “And we would completely reject that it is we who have been interfering.”

Putin also benefits from widespread skepticism and ‘change fatigue’ on the part of the Russian public, analysts suggest.

“While a minority of intellectuals and democracy activists have shown envy or drawn inspiration from Ukraine’s protest movement – and blasted the Russian state media for distorting the story – this is far from the majority view,” writes FT analyst Kathrin Hille:

In particular, for those who experienced the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the stormy 1990s – a period marked by political infighting, food shortages and rampant inflation – a quiet, safe life is more important than anything else. These are the people who, although more critical of corruption and economic stagnation, keep electing Mr Putin because they cherish stability. Ukraine reminds them of what could have been.

An opinion poll conducted before the latest upsurge in violence shows that Russians were already becoming more skeptical about the Ukrainian protests. Disinterest had given way to bewilderment, irritation and resentment.

According to a survey in January by Levada Center, Russia’s most independent pollster, 84 per cent of respondents saw events in Kiev as a violent coup attempt and only 4 per cent as a peaceful protest. The proportion of those believing in a peaceful resolution of the standoff through compromise dropped to 23 per cent, down from 34 per cent a month earlier, while 17 per cent fear that the situation would escalate into civil war.

“Moscow’s fierce criticism of western leaders and the Ukrainian opposition is not simply the panicky response of an authoritarian government trying to shore up its Ukrainian puppet, as sometimes described in Washington or Brussels,” Hille adds. “It stems from a very real difference in perspective on the unrest.”

But it’s a perspective strongly informed by a distinct form of ideological nostalgia.

“Like the old Communist International, or Comintern, in its day, Moscow is again building an international ideological alliance,” Matthews contends:

The Comintern sought to bring ‘progressives’ and left-wingers of every stripe into Moscow’s ideological big tent; Putin is pitching for moral leadership of all conservatives who dislike liberal values. And again, like the Comintern, Putin appears convinced that he is embarking on a world-historical mission. It’s certainly true that such a moral mission has deep roots in Russian history. Many previous occupants of the Kremlin have set themselves up as defenders of orthodoxy and autocracy — notably Nicholas I, the ‘gendarme of Europe’, and the arch-conservative Alexander III. Putin quoted the 19th-century conservative thinker Nikolai Berdyaev in his Duma speech. ‘The point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward,’ Putin said, ‘but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’

Putin is also able to take advantage of the Kremlin’s hyper-centralized administration and political discipline to act more decisively than the haplessly divided European Union.

“The deadly violence that exploded this week in Ukraine has another victim: Europe’s foreign-policy credibility,” the Wall Street Journal reports:

A few months ago Ukraine looked on course to be drawn into the Western orbit through a wide-ranging trade-and-aid agreement with the European Union. Today, Ukraine is advertising Europe’s helplessness to influence events even in countries close to its borders.

Some governments, including Spain, Italy and the U.K. have been trying to strengthen ties with Moscow, which dipped to a low point in 2008 after Russia’s invasion of Georgia….Other EU countries, including Sweden, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia, have pushed hard to bring Kiev closer to the EU, seeing it as a major economic opportunity.

One senior European official said this week that at least half of the bloc has made an improvement in ties with the Kremlin a priority—ties that may be tested again when the EU tries to meet an August target to complete economic accords with the former Soviet states of Moldova and Georgia.

“The conditionality in the original EU association offer to Ukraine was informed by the lessons of the first, post-Cold War enlargement wave in the late 1990s,” says Ewald Böhlke of the German Council on Foreign Relations, reflecting the common view in Germany that more should have been demanded of countries such as Hungary before being allowed to enter the EU.

‘Arsenal of reaction’

“It would be easy to dismiss Putin’s conservative Comintern as another Sochi-style vanity project if it weren’t for the fact that Russia’s hard power is growing in parallel with its soft power,” notes Matthews:

For the first time in a generation Moscow called the shots on a major international diplomatic issue last year, when Sergei Lavrov’s plan to supervise Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament derailed US plans for military strikes on Damascus. Over recent years Moscow unsuccessfully backed local despots in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya — and they lost their heads, just like old Soviet clients from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia. But with Syria that run of failure is finally changing. Moscow’s diplomatic protection in the UN, backed by Russian weapons, intelligence and military expertise, finally means something again.

“If Harry Truman wanted to make the US the arsenal of democracy, then Putin seems to have a similar plan for Russia to be the arsenal of reaction,” he writes.

A strategy to counter democracy’s global retreat?

According to Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom in the World Report, 2013 was the eighth year in a row in which freedom lost ground, notes a leading analyst.

Yet the decade of freedom’s retreat was also a decade of unprecedented effort on the part of governments and nonprofit organizations to help freedom thrive, the American Interest’s Walter Russell Mead writes for the Wall Street Journal:

Between 2006 and 2012, the U.S. government alone spent $18.6 billion on democracy promotion, partly because of stepped up efforts in Afghanistan and the Middle East. This is a substantially higher rate of spending than during the post-Cold War years, when the former Warsaw Pact states were moving toward democracy…..The gloomy prospects for democratic self-government in many parts of the world should not come as a surprise. Building democracy took generations in much of the Atlantic world, and most revolutions didn’t succeed in establishing stable democratic regimes.

For example, “Egypt’s transition didn’t fail because the country’s democrats didn’t attend enough conferences on democracy building. It failed because the weight of their nation’s history, economics, religion and culture was too heavy for the relative handful of true democrats to lift,” he contends:

This doesn’t mean that democracy advocates should wring their hands and stand aside, but it does mean we need to think about promoting deeper social change over longer periods. To become and remain democratic, countries need to develop cultural values hospitable to the rule of law, protection of private property, transparency and peaceful transitions of power that are grounded in their own religious and cultural identities. That is not, ultimately, a process that foreigners can orchestrate or control.

“It took Christian theologians hundreds of years to reconcile democratic and liberal ideas with traditional Christian thought; for Muslims, too, this could be the work of decades or generations,” says Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College. 


Promoting democracy: 7 don’ts

Democracy and freedom are in decline around the world. What should the United States do to reverse this trend? Better yet, what shouldn’t it do? asks Freedom House president David J. Kramer.

Two headlines emerged from Freedom House’s just-released annual report, Freedom in the World: an eighth consecutive year of decline in democracy around the world and a leadership gap among the community of democratic nations, he writes for the American Interest.

Instead of offering recommendations on what the U.S. needs to do, he suggests seven things Washington needs to stop doing.

1. Don’t think that in today’s interconnected world threats to democracy and freedom elsewhere pose no threat to our own democracy and interests, or to those of our allies. ….

2. Don’t fall for the false choice between staying out of difficult situations entirely, on the one hand, and sending in hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, on the other. There are many things we can do in between those extremes to support moderate, democratic forces—things like funding activists and showing solidarity by meeting with them ….

3. Don’t assume that just because the United States cannot and should not intervene everywhere that we should not intervene anywhere…..

4. Don’t call for leaders to step down from power and then do nothing to bring to fruition such an outcome. ….Read the rest.