The virtues of modesty: work with the grain to develop democracy

dem asstce levy grainNeither modestly incremental ‘good governance’ nor transformational transition programs are effective at building sustainable democratic institutions, says Johns Hopkins University’s Brian Levy.

As part of a leadership team within the World Bank tasked with integrating governance into development strategy. I participated in forging the good governance consensus. But I’m now convinced that it is wrong, he writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:

I’ve come to realize that it completely underestimates how much time and commitment are needed to transform a country’s institutions. As my new book argues, we need to shift our attention away from trying to achieve everything at once and focus instead on gains that can initially seem quite modest — but which, if pursued persistently, can sometimes.

Here is what makes efforts at far-reaching institutional reform in nascent democracies so unlikely to succeed. Many emerging democracies depend for their stability on complex personal alliances and compromises. Rival factions may agree to use an election to decide who gets to govern — but beyond that they’re generally unwilling or unable to commit to formal rules for either the economic or political game. Instead, as Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Douglass North has underscored in his recent work, what really holds things together are deals on how to share the spoils of power. Sometimes insiders can be wholly predatory. But at other times, personalized arrangements can provide just enough stability to push economic development forward and to strengthen democratic institutions.

Economically, an approach that goes “with the grain” offers three key lessons on how we might engage differently, Levy contends:

First, do no harm. The experience of Bangladesh offers an excellent example of the advantages of caution. In both 2001 and 2005, Transparency International rated Bangladesh as the world’s most corrupt country. Even so, since its transition to democracy in the early 1990s, its economy has grown at a rate of 6 percent annually, while the child mortality rate has fallen by two-thirds, from 151 per thousand in 1990 to 52 per thousand by 2009. Far-reaching institutional reforms — such as high-profile campaigns against corruption — might have destabilized the (ethically ambiguous) institutional arrangements that have made these achievements possible, potentially doing more harm than good….

Second, practitioners should focus on achieving concrete results via “islands of effectiveness” rather than on across-the-board overhauls. Political and economic elites are rarely willing to give up their special privileges in settings where they enjoy enormous power. In such situations, reformers have a better chance of doing good by nurturing zones of economic dynamism rather than endlessly (and fruitlessly) pushing for a “level playing field.” ….

Third, don’t overreach. One form of overreaching is to over-promise — suggesting, for example, that newly democratizing countries can quickly create market-supporting institutional arrangements that usually take decades to build. A similar error is to insist that all good things come by traveling the democratic path — and only along that path. The evident success of East Asian autocracies — from South Korea’s quarter-century of strong, inclusive growth under military rule to China’s historically unprecedented success in lifting close to a billion people out of poverty in just a few decades — make a powerful counter-argument to this simplistic view.

RTWT

Yemen: Saleh bites back?

 

Credit: Sada

Credit: Sada

Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, has been besieged since August by armed Houthi followers demanding the government’s resignation after a decision to cut fuel subsidies, the latest in a series of grievances they hope to settle, notes Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist based in Sanaa. Thousands of protesters are camping out near important government institutions like the ministry of interior, raising concerns that there will be a violent escalation to topple the government. Meanwhile, Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is using the crisis to reestablish his influence on the country’s politics, he writes for Carnegie’s Sada Journal:

Seeking to appear above the fray, Saleh keeps denying claims that he supports Houthi fighting in Amran, Jawf, and Sanaa. “We will not stand with a party against the other,” he toldsupporters from Amran on September 9, calling for dialogue to save Yemeni blood after more than 10 pro-Houthi protesters were killed and 60 others injured in a confrontation with the government forces near the cabinet building. Saleh has made a show of ignoring the unrest, instead receiving tribal and religious leaders from all over Yemen who came to show support after an alleged assassination attempt. …

Whatever its strength or motives, Saleh’s potential overt support for the Houthis would likely help their cause in the short term, giving them political backing—particularly from pro-Saleh tribal leaders and his supporters within the army. However, even an informal alliance risks enflaming the tensions in Sanaa and may lead to further violence. But Yemen can avoid all-out war if the Houthis opt for a political solution. If they form a party and maintain the backing of Saleh and his supporters, they will be able to make stronger demands, and President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, who depends mainly on international support that would be lost if Yemen went to war, is keen to ensure such a resolution.

RTWT

Waves of democratization are not over?

JODIn the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy, (PDF), Marc Plattner makes the provocative claim that “the era of democratic transitions is over, and should now become the province of the historians,” notes political scientist Jay Ulfelder. By that, he seems to mean that we should not expect new waves of democratization similar in form and scale to the ones that have occurred before. I think Plattner is wrong, in part because he has defined “wave” too broadly, he writes on his Dart Throwing Chimp blog.

In his essay, Plattner implicitly adopts the definition of waves of democratization described by Samuel Huntington on p. 15 of his influential 1991 book:

A wave of democratization is a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specified period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite direction during that period of time.

Much of what’s been written and said about waves of democratization since that book was published accepts those terms and the three waves Huntington identifies when he applies them to the historical evidence: one in Europe from the 1820s to the 1920s; another and wider one in Europe, Latin America, and Asia from the 1940s to the early 1960s; and a third and so-far final one that began in Portugal in 1974, has been global in scope, and now appears to have stalled or ended…..

I think we can make out at least five and maybe more such waves since the early 1900s, not the three or maybe four we usually hear about.

First, as Plattner  (p. 9) points out, what Huntington describes as the “first, long” wave really includes two distinct clusters: 1) the “dozen or so European and European-settler countries that already had succeeded in establishing a fair degree of freedom and rule of law, and them moved into the democratic column by gradually extending the suffrage”; and 2) “countries that became democratic after World War I, many of them new nations born from the midst of the European empires defeated and destroyed during the war.”

The second (or now third?) wave grew out of World War II. Even though this wave was relatively short, it also included a few distinct sub-clusters: countries defeated in that war, countries born of decolonization, and a number of Latin American cases. …. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to split the so-called second wave into two clusters (war losers and newly independent states) and a clump of coincidences (Latin America), but there are enough direct linkages across those sets to see meaning in a larger wave, too.

As for the so-called third wave, I’m with Mike McFaul (here) and others who see at least two separate clusters in there. The wave of democratization that swept southern Europe and Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s is temporally and causally distinct from the spate of transitions associated with the USSR’s reform and disintegration, so it makes no sense to talk of a coherent era spanning the past 40 years. Less clear is where to put the many democratic transitions—some successful, many others aborted or short lived—that occurred in Africa as Communist rule collapsed. Based partly on Robert Bates’ analysis (here), I am comfortable grouping them with the post-Communist cases. …

So, based on that definition and its application, I think it’s fair to say that we have seen at least five waves of democratization in the past two centuries, and perhaps as many as six or seven….

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries now have regimes that most observers would call democratic, so the pool of potential democratizers is substantially diminished. As Plattner puts it (p. 14), “The ‘low-hanging fruit’ has been picked.” Still, if we look for groups of authoritarian regimes that share enough political, economic, social, and cultural connections to allow common causes and contagion to kick in, then I think we can find some sets in which this dynamic could clearly happen again. I see three in particular.

The first and most obvious is in the Middle East and North Africa, the region that has proved most resistant to democratization to date. In fact, I think we already saw—or, arguably, are still seeing—the next wave of democratization in the form of the Arab Spring and its aftermath. So far, that cluster of popular uprisings and state collapses has only produced one persistently democratic state (Tunisia), but it has also produced a democratic interlude in Egypt; a series of competitively elected (albeit ineffective) governments in Libya; a nonviolent transfer of power between elected governments in Iraq; ongoing (albeit not particularly liberal) revolutions in Syria and Yemen; and sustained, liberal challenges to authoritarian rule in Bahrain, Kuwait, and, perhaps, Saudi Arabia. …

Beyond that, though, I also see the possibility of a wave of regime breakdowns and attempts at democracy in Asia brought on by economic or political instability in China. Many of the autocracies that remain in that region—and there are many—depend directly or indirectly on Chinese patronage and trade, so any significant disruption in China’s political economy would send shock waves through their systems as well. I happen to think that systemic instability will probably hit China in the next few years (see here, here, and here), but the timing is less relevant here than the possibility of this turbulence, and thus of the wider wave of democratization it could help to produce.

RTWT

Putin’s new anti-Americanism

russiaputinterrorAmbassador Michael McFaul was there when the promise of democracy came to Russia—and when it began to fade, the New Yorker’s David Remnick writes.

An expert on democracy assistance, McFaul encountered resistance to his ideas within the Administration, Remnick reports:

During one argument among aides in the White House, McFaul took the position that nations need not wait for the development of a middle class before building democratic institutions. As McFaul recalled, “Somebody said, ‘That’s interesting, but that’s not what the President thinks.’ And I said, ‘That’s interesting, but if that is what he thinks he is wrong.’ It was a jarring moment, and I thought I might even get fired.” He recalled arguing with Tom Donilon, the national-security adviser, about the issue. “Donilon would tell me, Obama is not really interested in that stuff. He’s just a realist.” And yet McFaul, who is not shy about suggesting his own influence, pointed out that Obama gave speeches in Cairo, Moscow, and Accra, in 2009, “making my arguments about why democracy is a good thing. . . . Those speeches made me more optimistic, after all those colleagues telling me he is just a realist.”

“Obama has multiple interests he is thinking about,” McFaul went on. “He has idealist impulses that are real, and then impulses about concerns about unintended consequences of idealism. We were in the Roosevelt Room during the Egypt crisis, and I asked, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘What I want is for this to happen quickly and the Google guy to become President. What I think is that this will be a long-drawn-out process.’ ”

Reminick profiles several of Russia’s leading ideologues and details the disturbing prevalence of anti-Western illiberal conspiracy theories that inform the regime’s policies.

Dmitri Kiselyov, the head of Russia Today, Putin’s newly created information agency, and the host, on Sunday nights, of the TV magazine show “News of the Week,” is a masterly, and unapologetic, purveyor of the Kremlin line, he notes:  

“Putin now talks more about ideology and about the system of values and the spiritual origins of Russia. In this sense, he, too, is a person of tardy development. He became President unexpectedly. He had no preparation for this role. He had to respond to challenges in the course of things. At first, he had to reconsolidate the state. Now he has inspired a new energy that can be drawn from the national character and the system of values that are rooted in our culture.”

“People in the West twenty-five years ago were surprised by how calmly Russians seemed to absorb the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Boris Mezhuev, the conservative columnist, said. “It seemed to them as if we had voted on it! But in no time at all people were told that everything they had worked for was nonsense. They were told that the state they lived in was based on an unfair idea, that ideology was a myth, the West was only a friend—a complete reversal of ideas. The West underestimated the shock. Only now are we facing the consequences.”

There is an air of defiance, even a heedlessness, to Putin’s behavior, Remnick suggests:

 As the conservative commentator Stanislav Belkovsky put it to me, “It was clear that the actions in Crimea would lead to sanctions, capital flight, and a deterioration of Russia’s reputation, but nobody supporting the aggression thought twice. The imperial horn has been sounded. But we are a Third World kleptocracy hiding behind imperial symbols. There are no resources for a true imperial revival.”

Aleksandr Prokhanov, a far-right newspaper editor and novelist, is another influential voice, Remnick notes:

Together with members of other institutions associated with the Kremlin—the armed forces, the intelligence services, and the Russian Orthodox Church—he started an intellectual group called the Izborsky Club. In the nineties, Yeltsin had called on a group of intellectuals to help formulate a new “Russian idea,” one that relied largely on a liberal, Westernized conception of the nation. It went nowhere. Now, with such notions as “democracy” and “liberalism” in eclipse, groups like the Izborsky Club, Prokhanov says, are a “defense factory where we create ideological weapons to resist the West.” He said the group recently organized a branch in eastern Ukraine, led by the pro-Russian separatists. “The liberals used to be in charge in all spheres,” Prokhanov said. “Now we are crowding them out.”

DUGIN-150x150Prokhanov is hardly an outlier on today’s ideological scene in Russia. Nor is the geopolitical theorist, mystic, and high-minded crackpot Aleksandr Dugin (right), who has published in Prokhanov’s newspapers. He was once as marginal as a Lyndon LaRouche follower with a card table and a stack of leaflets. He used to appear mainly on SPAS (Salvation), an organ of the Russian Orthodox Church. Now the state affords him frequent guest spots on official television.

“For all of Dugin’s extremism, he has, in the past decade, found supporters in the Russian élite,” Remnick notes:

According to the Israeli scholar Yigal Liverant and other sources, Dugin’s work is read in the Russian military academy. He has served as an adviser to Gennady Seleznyov, the former chairman of the Russian parliament. His Eurasia Movement, which was founded in 2001, included members of the government and the official media. He declared his “absolute” support for Putin, and when he pressed his political positions in public it was usually to take the most hard-line positions possible, particularly on Georgia and Ukraine. In 2008, he was appointed head of the Center for Conservative Studies at Moscow State University. Dugin used to brag that “Putin is becoming more and more like Dugin.” And indeed Putin speaks more and more in terms of Russian vastness, Russian exceptionalism, of Russia as a moral paradigm.

Despite these disturbing trends, McFaul – a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy – remains “very optimistic about Russia and Russians,” he tells Remnick:

“In my two years as Ambassador, I just met too many young, smart, talented people who want to be connected to the world, not isolated from it. They also want a say in the government. They are scared now, and therefore not demonstrating, but they have not changed their preferences about the future they want. Instead, they are just hiding these preferences, but there will be a day when they will express them again. Putin’s regime cannot hold these people down forever. I do worry about the new nationalism that Putin has unleashed, and understand that many young Russians also embrace these extremist ideas. I see it on Twitter every day. But, in the long run, I see the Westernizers winning out. I just don’t know how long is the long run.”  

RTWT

From democratic transitions to Brazil’s World Cup

In the latest round-up from Democracy Lab’s Transitions blog:

MarcplattnerThe National Endowment for Democracy’s Marc Plattner (left) wonders whether the current wave of democratic transitions may be petering out.

Antônio Sampaio analyzes the political fallout from Brazil’s epic World Cup failure.

Vera Mironova and Valerie Hopkins explain why Ukrainian civil society organizations are lending a hand to the beleaguered military.

Terra Lawson-Remer argues that redistributing revenues from Libya’s oil wealth is just what’s needed to consolidate the transition to democracy.

Mohamed Eljarh reports on the latest battle among militias for control of Libya’s main airport.

And now for this week’s recommended reads:

Ben Bland of Financial Times looks at the election dispute in Indonesia and assesses its likely impact on the country’s continuing transition.

Democracy Digest examines the obstacles still facing Burma on its path to liberal democracy. The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller covers the predicament of Burma’s Chinese Muslim minority as ethnic tensions deepen.

The Daily Beast‘s Josh Rogin reports on Movements.org, a new site attempting to crowdsource human rights.

Brookings’ Ted Piccone offers advice to the new U.N. human rights commissioner on how to maximize his effectiveness on the job.

RTWT