External 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.