Democracy promotion

Democracy promotion

Democracy promotion, which can also be referred to as democracy assistance, or democracy building, is a strand of foreign policy adopted by governments and international organizations that seek to support the spread of democracy as a political system around the world.



The precise definition of democracy promotion has been debated for more than twenty-five years. The multiplicity of terms used is a manifestation of the plurality of opinions and approaches taken by international actors, be they governments, NGOs or other third parties. For example, the term 'promotion' itself can be seen by some as too intrusive, or implying outside interference, whilst 'support' can be seen by some as more benign but, by others, as insufficiently assertive. These days the differences tend to divide into two main camps: those who see it as a political process on the one hand and those who see it as a developmental process on the other (see international relations and development aid for context).[1]

This basic division between the political and developmental approaches has existed inchoately in the field of democracy support for many years. It has come into sharper relief during this decade, as democracy-aid providers face a world increasingly populated by countries not conforming to clear or coherent political transitional paths. [...] Some adherents of the developmental approach criticize the political approach as too easily turning confrontational vis-à-vis “host” governments and producing unhelpful counterreactions. Some adherents of the political approach, meanwhile, fault the developmental approach for being too vague and unassertive in a world where many leaders have learned to play a reform game with the international community, absorbing significant amounts of external political aid while avoiding genuine democratization.

Thomas Carothers, 'Democracy Assistance: Political vs. Developmental', in Journal of Democracy vol.20, no.1, January 2009 pp.5–6

At least part of the problem lies in the absence of a consensus on what democracy constitutes. Indeed, the late Professor W.B. Gallie pointed to the impossibility of finding a firm solution to such a question, by including democracy in a list of 'essentially contested concepts'.[2] To date, the disagreement over definitions has seen some actors focus on supporting technical systems of democratic governance (elections, government structures and the like), while others take the bottom-up approach of promoting citizen participation and building strong civil and political society to prepare the ground on which systems of government can then be planted.

Much experience has been gained in the last twenty years. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, there was a wave of democratic transitions in former communist states, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. According to Freedom House, the number of democracies has increased from 41 of 150 in 1974 existing states to 123 of 192 states in 2006[3] (for Freedom House's most recent data). However, the pace of transition has slowed considerably since the beginning of the twenty-first century, which has encouraged some to ponder the question of whether democracy, far from advancing, may actually be under threat.[4] In recent years, scholars have been pointing to a so-called democratic deficit in countries where democratic systems already exist, including Britain, the USA and the European Union.[5]

The perceived challenge currently facing democracy around the world, both in countries where it is already at the core of the system of governance and in those where it is not, is encouraging academics and practitioners alike to re-evaluate what it means to promote, support or assist democracy in the post-Cold War situation.[6]

Among the reasons for supporting democracy include the belief that countries with a democratic system of governance are less likely to go to war, are likely to be economically better off and socially more harmonious.[7]

Key actors

Whilst support for human rights and the provision of disaster relief programmes have been around for many years, the trend of including support for democracy in international aid programmes is more recent. The United States Agency for International Development became the first major bilateral donor to include democracy as part of its portfolio when it launched its Democracy Initiative in 1990. [8]

Some of the most important government bodies active in this field are the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)[9], the UK's Department for International Development(DFID)[10] and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA)[11]. The European Commission also has a number of instruments that support democratic governance beyond its borders, at the core of which lies the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), administered by the EUROPEAID Directorate General [12]. The United Nations Development Program has an extensive program of work on Democratic Governance. [9]

The debate over the existence of a demonstrable link between democracy and development remains inconclusive: in other words, does democracy encourage the economic or social development of a country, or vice versa?[10]

This difference in focus can be seen in the reasons given by the government bodies mentioned above for their support for democracy abroad. Consider first the USAID approach:

The process of governing is most legitimate when it is infused with democratic principles such as transparency, pluralism, citizen involvement in decision-making, representation, and accountability. Citizens lose confidence in a government that is unable to deliver basic service; therefore, the degree to which a government is able to carry out its functions at any level is often a key determinant of a country’s ability to sustain democratic reform. USAID is particularly concerned with democratic governance—that is, the political dimensions of the public management process.

The UK's DFID is readier to assert the link between democracy and development. In a report published under the title 'Making Democracy Work for the Elimination of Poverty', DFID asserts that 'democracy gives poor people an opportunity to improve their lot.'[11] Similarly, Swedish SIDA states that, 'poverty is not just about a lack of food, water or a roof over your head. Being poor also implies suffering from a lack of power and choice.'[12]

This work is supported by numerous national and international civil society organisations (CSOs), NGOs and think tanks, either on the ground in countries receiving donor aid, or in national capitals lobbying for more support to be given for democracy promotion. Some of the most prolific American CSOs include the National Endowment for Democracy, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy and long-established German political foundations such as the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, among others, are building capacity in Europe. A number of such CSOs co-ordinate their activities at a EU level under umbrella organisations such as the European Network of Political Foundations (ENoP) ([13]) and the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) ([14])

Key features of democracy promotion

In a report commissioned by Irish Aid, Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute have studied five areas of democracy promotion and identified eight key lessons learned and challenges that remained.[3]

The five areas consisted of:

  1. elections and electoral processes
  2. political parties
  3. judicial reform
  4. civil society
  5. the media

The eight key lessons was[3]:

  1. The impetus for democratization must come from within – while external factors play an important role, the Iraq war is cited as an example as to why democracy cannot be imposed from the outside
  2. Donors should not rely on an idealized blueprint of democracy – promotion should be done with sensitivity to the context, rather than dogmatically sticking to a model not even mature northern democracies can be said to have fully achieved
  3. Donors should do more to strengthen accountability – despite great efforts, strong man politics dominates many fledgeling democracies and more needs to be done to strengthen and enforce laws and independent institutions governing executive powers and duties
  4. Donors should work with actors outside the donor ‘comfort zone’ – more should be done to engaged marginalised groups (e.g. rural communities) or groups considered too militant or political, such as trade unions, faith based groups, etc.
  5. Importance of balancing different donor goals and improving policy coherence – democracy promotion is but one part of the ‘good governance’ and development agenda, as well as influenced by foreign policy goals, and these may not all be mutually enforcing (Rwanda is cited as an example where the media was promoted but then played a crucial role in the genocide)
  6. Donors should come to terms with the contradictions between the long-term nature of democracy-building and the need for results
  7. The sustainability of many interventions needs to be addressed
  8. More meso- and macro-level evaluations of democratization assistance are needed – broad assessments of experience to date is needed and greater efforts should be made to share best practices.

See also

  • American democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa

Further reading

  • Thomas Carothers, Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004, ISBN 0-87003-209-7
  • Nicolas Guilhot, The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and International Order, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-231-13124-0


  1. ^ Thomas Carothers, 'Democracy Assistance: Political vs. Developmental', in Journal of Democracy vol.20, no.1, January 2009
  2. ^ Gallie (1956a), passim. Kekes (1977, p.71)
  3. ^ a b c Lise Rakner, Alina Rocha Menocal and Verena Fritz (2008) Assessing international democracy assistance: Key lessons and challenges] London: Overseas Development Institute
  4. ^ Azar Gat, The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers, in Foreign Affairs, July–August 2007, [1]
  5. ^ Saskia Sassen, Globalisation, the State and Democratic Deficit, Open Democracy, 18 July 2007, [2]; Patrice de Beer, France and Europe: the Democratic Deficit Exposed, Open Democracy, 4 June 2006, [3]
  6. ^ Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, Democracy and democracy-support: a new era, Open Democracy, 20 March 2009, [4]
  7. ^ see Peter Burnell, From Evaluating Democracy Assistance to Appraising Democracy Promotion, Political Studies Association, Political Studies 2008 VOL 56
  8. ^ USAID Policy: Democracy and Governance, November 1991, [5]
  9. ^ Democratic Governance [6]
  10. ^ Democracy in Development: How can both processes mutually reinforce each other?, European Centre for Development Policy Management, October 2009
  11. ^ DFID issues paper, Making Democracy Work for the Elimination of Poverty, [7]
  12. ^ SIDA, Democracy, human rights and equality used to combat poverty, 18 June 2009, [8]

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