Civil society strengthening subsequently became a central part of democracy promotion programmes implemented in both transition and developing countries. Since 1989 very large sums of money have been spent by international development agencies, private foundations and other actors on strengthening and nurturing the institutions of civil society, training civil society activists and funding their projects as a means of promoting democracy. In the former socialist countries, the aims of ‘democracy promotion’ and ‘programmes strengthening civil society’ have been to assist the transition from socialism as well as to support good governance and free and fair elections, human rights and the rule of law. In developing countries, in addition to these aims, it was hoped that promoting democracy and civil society strengthening would also enhance aid effectiveness and support efforts to reduce poverty. In conflict or post-conflict areas, promoting democracy is seen as a tool for preventing or reducing conflict (Kaldor et al. 2007: 110). In addition to all these aims, after September 11, democracy also came to be seen as vital in countering terrorism.
Since the early 1990s, programmes strengthening civil society, in particular American, have excluded political associations and parties (i.e. political society) in an attempt to appear non-partisan and to avoid accusations of ‘playing politics’ (Ottaway and Carothers 2000: 12). Instead, although donors have recently sought to expand the definition of civil society to include more actors than just NGOs, in practice civil society was often equated with the development and growth of NGOs and as a result, the infusion of donor funding and focus on civil society strengthening throughout the 1990s led to an unprecedented and exponential growth in the numbers of NGOs worldwide. Many have referred to this as the ‘NGOisation’ of civil society.
Nearly two decades have passed since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and presently there is widespread acknowledgement that democracy promotion efforts in various regions, including the former Soviet Union, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, have failed to produce democratic regimes, and that the anticipated vibrant, independent civil societies do not exist. Even in countries where civil democracy promotion efforts are considered a success (for example, Eastern Europe) there is growing cynicism towards civil society (Hann 2004: 47). Furthermore, there is a rising backlash against democracy promotion as the euphoria and optimism that accompanied the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War have been replaced by disillusionment. In spite of the emerging pessimism and backlash, donors and policy makers describe democracy as a universal value and right (Ferrerro-Waldner 2006; McFaul 2004: 148; UN Democracy Fund [UNDEF] URL). Such is the popularity of democracy today that even ‘despots’ (Rieffer and Mercer 2005: 385) and ‘tyrants’ (McFaul 2004: 151) who are suspicious of Western-led democracy promotion, pretend to be democrats or claim they are charting an evolutionary (or revolutionary) transition to democracy.
Of the various strands of democracy promotion, in this chapter I focus on civil society strengthening programmes and ask the following questions. First, can democracy be promoted through civil society strengthening, and second, given that democracy appears to have near universal appeal and acceptance (at least at the level of rhetoric), why has there been a backlash against democracy promotion that targets civil society? My reasons for focusing on civil society strengthening programmes instead of programmes that are aimed at election monitoring or state institution building are twofold. First, civil society strengthening was viewed as an end itself as well as a means of furthering the other components (such as human rights and free and fair elections) within the democracy promotion agenda. Second, the current backlash against democracy promotion is almost entirely directed at civil society strengthening programmes and involves legal and extralegal measures aimed at constraining, co-opting, coercing or closing foreign-funded NGOs (Gershman and Allen 2006: 38; Howell et al. 2007). Foreign funding of NGOs is increasingly being described as a form of interventionism and neo-imperialism, and as the creation of a fifth column.
I begin by examining why democracy promotion and civil society strengthening became a central part of donor aid programmes in the 1990s, before discussing the achievements and challenges of democracy promotion. In doing so, I consider several explanations and arguments suggested by policy makers and scholars as to why democracy promotion has not been as successful as anticipated and hoped for in the post-Cold War euphoria. I consider a range of arguments and although I recognise that authoritarian legacies and culture shape perceptions, understandings and practices, I argue that the manner in which civil society and democracy were defined and operationalised as well as the current conflation of democracy with regime change in certain contexts, such as Iraq and Venezuela, have significantly affected democracy promotion efforts.
Why democracy promotion and civil society strengthening?
Although he did not use the term civil society, Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to attribute the importance of associationalism and self-organisation for democracy (Kaldor 2003: 19). In the late twentieth century, de Tocqueville’s work became quite popular among some American scholars, including Robert Putnam, Francis Fukuyama and Larry Diamond, and it was subsequently also influential in policy circles. The neo-Toquevillian position is that democracy is strengthened, not weakened, when it faces a vigorous civil society (Putnam 1994) and that successful transitions to democracy are possible only if civil society or ‘something like it’ either predates the transition or is established in the course of a transition from authoritarian rule (Perez-Diaz 1993: 40). The belief that civil society is a bulwark against the ‘monstrous state’ (Weffort 1989: 349) and a counterweight to state power (Rueschemeyer et al. 1992: 6) supported the emphasis on civil society promotion in US foreign aid programmes, and what some describe as the ‘democracy aid industry’ (Encarnacion 2003: 709). While these neo-Tocquevillian theories linking civil society to democracy became a key element of the post-Cold War zeitgeist and subsequently quite fashionable among certain donor agencies, they are not universally accepted among academics.
On the contrary, there are scholars who argue that democracy can be weakened by civil society (Berman 1997; Bermeo and Nord 2000) and that the nature of civil society is far more important than the existence of civil society alone (Bayart 1986; White 2004). Sheri Berman, in particular, has pointed out the dangers of an active civil society, which can lead to illiberal regimes. Through an analysis of the collapse of the Weimar Republic, Berman argues that the active participation of citizens in civil society led to the weakening of democracy and the rise of the Nazi party (Berman 1997: 408). She maintains that middle-class tension and frustration sparked the growth and activism in voluntary associations and that their participation subverted republican virtue (Berman 1997: 417). She contends that what is needed is a shift away from the normative view of civil society to a more politically neutral view, in which civil society or associationalism are neither ‘inherently good nor inherently bad, but rather dependent’ on the wider political context (1997: 426–27).
David Rieff also criticises the ‘dogma holding that civil society strengthening is the key to creating and sustaining a healthy polity’ (Rieff 1999). He views the rise in popularity of civil society in the late 1980s and 1990s as being part of wider trend of the privatisation of the state and the shrinking of overseas aid budgets, and argues for a greater focus on the nation state than on civil society.
While the neo-Tocquevillian position was influential in donor policy circles, it should be recalled that the Latin American and Eastern European intellectuals, dissidents and activists were far more inspired and influenced by the ideas of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. For Gramsci, civil society was more than political economy. He questioned the economism of the Marxist definition and went on to invert Marx’s vision by arguing that ideologies come before institutions and that ideology is the force capable of shaping new histories (Bobbio 1988: 88). Gramsci placed the emphasis on civil society’s politically relevant cultural dimension (Cohen 1999: 214) and considered civil society as the space for the (re)production and contestation of hegemonic as well as counter-hegemonic discourses. In both Eastern Europe and Latin America civil society referred to autonomy and self-organisation, with an emphasis on withdrawal from the state and the creation instead of ‘islands of civic engagement’ (Kaldor 2003: 193).
In the 1980s Jürgen Habermas’ work on civil society also became quite influential in academic circles. Habermas’ notion of the communicative public sphere envisaged a space where people could discuss matters of mutual concern and learn about facts, events and others’ opinions (Habermas 1996). As opposed to de Toqueville’s vision in which public opinion was treated more as ‘a compulsion toward conformity’, for Habermas public communication had the potential to provide the space in which the general or public interest could be rationally and critically discussed (Habermas 1992: 133). Although Habermas saw this potential in the ideal model of the public sphere, he also expressed concern with the colonisation of the ‘lifeworld’ that undermined the progressive potential of the project (Howell and Pearce 2002: 57). Nevertheless, Habermas went on to search for the emancipatory possibilities of civil society and subsequently triggered a debate, which continues today, about civil society, democracy and conceptions of the public sphere.
While scholars continue to debate the virtues, relationship and contributions of civil society to democracy (Chandhoke 1995), in the 1990s donors began actively supporting civil society strengthening programmes, driven by the belief that the relationship between civil society and democracy is natural and inevitable (Howell and Pearce 2002: 51). Driven by policy influenced by neo-Tocquevillian thinking, it was believed that through financial and technical assistance to civil society, democracy could be built. When conducting interviews with donors in Armenia in 2002–3, I was struck by the fact that none of my respondents from donor agencies who were engaged in democracy promotion programmes ever questioned whether civil society should be strengthened as part of their democracy building efforts; the question was always how it could best be done. Indeed, as the transitions progressed in all the former socialist countries, the radical democratic ideas and visions of civil society that had emerged in the 1980s dissipated, giving way to more established and less revolutionary neo-liberal ones. Subsequently, civil society became a project that was implemented in the name of democracy building, which eventually led to the projectisation of civil society (Sampson 2002). While this approach has led to the phenomenal growth in the number of NGOs, it has not generated genuine participation or public debate. The following quote, cited by Timothy Garton Ash from an Eastern European colleague, sums up the projectisation which occurred in the 1990s: ‘We dreamed of civil society and got NGOs’ (Garton Ash 2004).
It is important to note that although most bilateral and multilateral donors have some institutional mechanism for engaging with or supporting civil society strengthening, not all explicitly focus on democracy building or democracy promotion programmes. In the next section I consider the different stances of the key bilateral and multilateral, as well as non-state, donors that have been involved in civil society strengthening for democracy promotion.
Donor approaches to democracy promotion
US democracy promotion
Although the US has been engaged in democracy promotion since the 1980s through a focus on election monitoring, civil society strengthening became a significant part of US foreign policy following the collapse of the socialist regimes (Ottaway and Carothers 2000). Since then, civil society assistance has come to be considered ‘a centrepiece of America’s international outreach’ (US Senate 2006: 1) and ‘a matter of principle’ (Tobias 2007). This position is reflected in the fact that since the early 1990s, more money has been spent on civil society assistance than on any other sectors of USAID democracy assistance (Finkel et al. 2006: 33). From 1990–2003, most USAID democracy assistance was sent to the countries in Eurasia ($5.77 million) with the lowest levels of aid going to Africa ($1.29 million) and Asia ($1.29 million) (Finkel et. al. 2006: 33–4). US-funded civil society assistance has largely been directed at NGOs, because the USAID position in the early 1990s was to provide vigorous support for local NGOs, which would ‘be a critical element of civil society strengthening’ (USAID 1999: v). Although the earlier strong focus on NGOs has shifted somewhat and civil society is now defined more broadly, the assumption persists that ‘a strong civil society is desirable and makes democratic practices and traditions more likely to flourish’ (USAID 1999: xi). As US Senator Joseph Biden stated in the 2006 Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on NGOs, ‘we must understand that an election does not a democracy make…A democracy must rest on the foundation of a strong civil society’ (Biden 2006, emphasis added).
Funding in this area increased following September 11 when democracy promotion became a distinct national security concern and ‘key objective of US foreign policy’ (USAID URL). While the official US position is clear vis à vis civil society and democracy promotion, the approach of the European Union and various leading European bilateral donors toward democracy promotion in general and civil society strengthening in particular is more ‘vague’ (Schmid and Braizat 2006: 3) and ‘opaque’ (Youngs 2006: 8).
European democracy promotion
While democratisation is by no means a new departure for the EU or European bilateral donors, Richard Gillespie and Richard Youngs contend that the US began focusing more systematically on democratisation slightly earlier than the EU and that effective co-ordination of EU democracy promotion efforts has been conspicuously absent (Gillespie and Youngs 2002). They maintain that until the late 1990s, the lack of mechanisms for marrying national initiatives to overall common guidelines on democracy presented a serious challenge to effective concerted European action (Gillespie and Youngs 2000: 6). Discussions on transatlantic democracy building efforts have intensified following September 11 (Schmid and Braizat 2006: 4), but as Jeffrey Kopstein points out, following the war in Iraq, many European leaders and the European public remain suspicious of democracy promotion, interpreting it as ‘a repackaged commitment to the unilateral use of force as well as justification for war and occupation’ (Kopstein 2006: 85).
Presently, the EU is intensifying its democracy promotion programmes. Of the three strands of EU democracy promotion, which include enlargement, the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the EIDHR is the EU structure that most specifically targets civil society. Created in 1994 and with a current annual budget of €100–130 million, the EIDHR supports human rights, democratisation and conflict prevention activities. EIDHR can act entirely independently of national governments in partner countries and work with a wider ranger of actors, including parliaments, political foundations and civil society organisations, but it has been criticised for failing to have a real impact because its lacks administrative flexibility, requires long lead times and tends to favour the capital-based NGOs, known as the ‘capital darlings’ (European Foundation for Democracy 2006: 6).
A survey of European bilateral and multilateral democracy promotion policies from 2001–6 by the Fundacion Para Las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (FRIDE) also found that there was sufficient complexity and diversity to make it difficult to speak of ‘the European approach’ (Youngs 2006: 25, emphasis in original). Of the seven countries surveyed (Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK), there was variation in the levels of ‘democracy-related competence’ and ‘manpower allocated specifically to democracy promotion responsibilities remained limited’, with Sweden having the most clearly articulated democracy promotion policies (Youngs 2006: 16–17). While various European bilateral donors, including the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (SIDA), actively support and engage with civil society actors through their programmes, they tend to view democracy as a means by which to eliminate or overcome poverty (DFID URLa; URLb) or as a means for achieving peace, justice and human rights (SIDA 1997). Democracy is not discussed as a matter of principle or centrepiece of policy, as in the US context discussed above.
Moreover, there is relatively less focus on civil society as a key pillar of democracy promotion among European bilateral and multilateral donors as compared to the US. Indeed organisations such as the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) (URL), which focus heavily on civil society promotion, were described as ‘pushy’ by some respondents in the FRIDE report (Youngs 2006: 18). Even the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is far more focused on legislative processes, legal training, rule of law and political parties than on civil society.
The UN approach
Even though democracy is not a precondition for UN membership and the word ‘democracy’ does not appear in the UN charter, since 2005 the UN has also made a foray into democracy promotion. According to Newman and Rich,
It is not one of the stated purposes of the United Nations to foster democracy, to initiate the process of democratisation or to legitimise other actors’ efforts in this field [democracy promotion]. (Newman and Rich 2004: 5)
Although various UN agencies, including the UN Development Programme and the Office for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have engaged with civil society through their programme activities or civil society consultative fora, including the Conference of Non-Governmental Organisations in Consultative Relationship with the UN (CONGO), the establishment of the UNDEF in July 2005 was the first time that a separate structure was created in the UN specifically to promote democracy. Of UNDEF’s six funding priority areas, three focus on civil society and provide funding for civil society empowerment, civic education and citizens’ access to information. Although this demonstrates a focus on civil society in democratisation, there are concerns as to how UNDEF will decide on funding to NGOs and other civil society organisations that are critical of a member state’s authority. According to the executive head of UNDEF, Magdy Martinez Soliman, active democracy promotion is only a recent admissible part of the UN mandate and one that has been problematic because it can eventually go against the will of the non-democratic representative of a member state (Martinez-Soliman 2006: 2). There is concern with maintaining a balance between respecting national ownership on political transitions while providing external support to democrats and democratic values, so that democracy assistance is not seen as regime change or interference. For this reason, Martinez-Soliman argues that democracy assistance from the UN should be provided only at a member state’s request, otherwise democracy promotion in hostile environments can create ‘the kiss of death’ – bolstering the authoritarians’ argument that democrats are not representative of the national community and are supported from abroad.
Non-state actors and democracy promotion
In addition to bilateral and multilateral agencies, non-state actors, including private foundations, Northern NGOs, private service contractors, political parties and others have been involved in democracy promotion. There are differences among these various actors in terms of their objectives and missions, as well as levels of financial independence and autonomy. Some organisations, such as the Open Society Institute (also known as the Soros Foundation) and the Ford Foundation, are funded by private endowments and consider democracy promotion as an integral part of their mission. They have been actively engaged in democracy promotion and civil society strengthening. Meanwhile NGOs or quasi-NGOs such as the US-based NED and National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, or the UK-based Westminster Foundation for Democracy (URL), which are also committed to promoting democracy around the world, have less financial independence than the aforementioned private foundations and are dependent on government funding. For instance, NED receives an annual appropriation from the US Congress through the Department of State (NED URL), while the Westminster Foundation is an independent body that receives £4.1 million annual funding from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (URL). In addition to these various types of foundations, there are also political parties or organisations affiliated to political parties that engage in democracy promotion. In Germany, for instance, there are a number of organisations, including the Friedrich Ebert, Friedrich Naumann, Heinrich Böll and Konrad Adenauer foundations that are associated with various political parties and that have been active in democracy promotion. Finally, among non-state actors, there are the private service contractors or consulting companies (such as Planning and Development Collabrative International and Development Alternatives, Inc. URL), which procure contracts and carry out democracy promotion, civil society strengthening and governance on behalf of and based on the specifications of their clients. USAID, in particular, provides a significant amount of contracts to such consulting companies and private service contractors. In 2004 alone it provided US $8 billion to contractors engaged in carrying out international development projects throughout the world (USAID 2006).
While the levels of financial and operational autonomy vary, it is important to recognise that similar to the bilateral and multilateral approaches discussed above, there tends to be a strong commitment among all the aforementioned non-state actors to the belief that civil society is important for democracy building. So, given the involvement of such diverse actors, what has been the impact of democracy promotion through civil society strengthening? Democracy promotion has had mixed results.
Achievements of democracy promotion programmes
Many of the democracy promotion success stories are about the countries in Central and East Europe, although South Africa and the Philippines are also mentioned (Gaventa 2006; Hawthorne 2004: 5). The EU enlargement and accession process has come to be seen not only as the EU’s first major experience of democracy promotion, but also as one of the most successful cases of democracy promotion in general. Integration into the EU is often described as an effective tool of democracy promotion because it provided incentives for the leadership of democratising countries to pursue internal changes (McFaul 2004: 157). Certainly, great strides have been made and many democratic institutions and practices have been established in the countries of Central and East Europe. However, this did not happen overnight and enlargement is not an approach that can be replicated elsewhere. Moreover, the ‘return to Europe’ has been more complicated than would initially appear. Examining democratisation processes in Central and Eastern Europe, Mary Kaldor and Ivan Vejvoda recognise the establishment of formal democratic institutions and maintain that there is hope for the development of substantive democracies in these countries. They contend that the process of democratisation, in substantive terms, is ‘underway’ (Kaldor and Vejvoda 1997: 80). While acknowledging the successes of Eastern European countries in establishing democratic institutions and practices, it is important to also recognise that the development of democracy and the growth of Eastern European civil societies (namely, an increased number of organisations) has not necessarily been translated into greater citizen engagement or participation (Celichowski 2004: 77), or led to greater benefits for various social groups (Hann 2004: 46).
The exponential growth in numbers of NGOs worldwide is also often cited as evidence of the success of democracy promotion efforts. Indeed, there has been a ‘global associational revolution’ (Salamon and Anheier 1997) and the number of civil society organisations has dramatically grown worldwide since 1990. Civil society organisations, and in particular NGOs, are actively engaged with governments and intergovernmental bodies on issues of global and national importance through awareness raising, advocacy and lobbying. These organisations work on a wide spectrum of issues, including poverty reduction, debt relief, human rights, women’s rights, the environment and others. Although there are questions about civil society impact on policy making, the ability of civil society actors to introduce issues onto national and global political agendas, to influence public debates, and to name and shame actors who do not deliver on their promises, should not be underestimated. Consultations with NGOs, as well as the growing complaints about the power of NGOs from politicians and business leaders, attest to the fact that civil society organisations are actively engaged in public debates and policy advocacy at the national and global levels.
While the growth and presence of NGOs is undeniable, increased activism should not necessarily be seen as the result of democracy promotion programmes for two reasons. First, much of the civil society activism at the global level comes from organisations based in or operating in the global North; far fewer Southern organisations are engaged in lobbying and advocacy at the global level. It still tends to be the ‘usual suspects’ (that is, well-established, Northern-based organisations) that are engaged in global activism and included in consultations with intergovernmental organisations. For instance, only 251 of the 1,550 NGOs associated with the UN Department of Public Information come from the global South; the remainder are NGOs from the global North (Wild 2006).
Second, although the numbers of NGOs have dramatically increased in developing and transition countries, the reality is that the vast majority of these NGOs are almost entirely dependent on foreign support. This dependence not only raises concerns about their long-term sustainability and impact but also raises questions about their legitimacy, probity and accountability. In other words, are these NGOs considered legitimate actors locally? These considerations are often ignored and the growth in the number of NGOs is frequently cited by donors as a sign of success. This is due to the fact that it is easier to count the number of organisations and to cite increased numbers as evidence of the impact and success of donor programmes. For instance, the ‘Lessons in Implementation: The NGO Story’ report published by USAID in 1999 examines the lessons learned in ‘building civil society in Central and Eastern Europe and the New Independent States’. The report acknowledges that the immense amount of aid led to an ‘explosive growth of local NGOs’ (USAID 1999: 3), citing growth as one of the eight success indicators. The need for demonstrating success is driven by the pressures on all actors engaged in democracy promotion, whether donors or recipients, to demonstrate effectiveness and to give account to their own funders. However, since it is difficult to measure the impact of democracy-building efforts on people’s behaviour and attitudes, often what is considered and presented as signs of success are the formal or procedural democratic mechanisms and institutions.
The minimalist or procedural definition of democracy is identified as originating with Joseph Schumpeter (1947), who argued that democracy at the conceptual level is the existence of citizens holding their rulers accountable and the existence of procedures by which to do so. This narrow approach focuses on the formal institutions of democracy and does not consider social and economic inequalities and how they affect participation, access and decision making. While procedural democratic institutions and mechanisms are necessary and in fact represent an a priori safeguard against the abuses of power and for the development of substantive democracy (Kaldor and Vejvoda 1997: 63), there are many managed democracies where the procedural elements are present but where substantive democracy is absent. Consequently while recognising the successes, we must be cautious in prematurely proclaiming the triumph of democracy promotion efforts, consider the challenges and ask why a backlash against civil society strengthening is emerging.
Challenges and obstacles to democracy promotion
In analysing why the transitions to democracy have not yielded the expected results, a common claim is that a society’s propensity or ‘fitness’ for democracy is predicated on its cultural and geographic proximity to the West (Nodia 2002; McFaul 2002). Ernest Gellner (1994), for instance, argued that the concept of civil society is inapplicable in certain contexts, including in non-Western patrimonial societies and in tribal societies (Gellner 1994). He questioned whether civil society could exist in Islamic societies. Others, such as Elie Kedourie or Serif Mardin, have also claimed civil society is a Western dream that does not translate well into Islamic society (Mardin 1995, quoted in Sajoo 2002) or that Muslims have nothing in their own political traditions that is compatible with Western notions of democracy (Kedourie 1992). Meanwhile, in the context of the post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe, ‘transitologists’ often ‘invoke “culture”, that amorphous, omnibus concept’ as an explanation for why certain Western policies or blueprints have been resisted (Burawoy and Verdery 1999: 14). For instance, in Bosnia, culture or ethnic mentality were cited as reasons for the inability to embrace civil society development and democratisation. David Chandler discusses the disparaging ways in which the Bosnian people and society were viewed by some international actors and internationally funded local NGOs. They perceived Bosnian society as ‘deeply sick’, ‘feudalistic’ or as ‘the flock’ (Chandler 2004: 240–1). He argues that this focus on the perceived incapacities of Bosnians is only one side of the story and that greater attention must be paid to the ‘failing within international democratisation practice itself’ (Chandler 2004: 228).
Such sweeping generalisations and claims that blame culture for the lack of democracy or progress are hardly new; they are examples of the interpretations that have been used to explain the failure of development and modernisation programmes since the 1950s. Michael Herzfeld criticises the ‘misuse of the culture concept’ in the media and among some academics who decry ‘Balkan nationalism’ and ‘religious fundamentalism’, all the while failing to recognise their own, Western cultural fundamentalisms. Yet, as Herzfeld adds, rejecting the essentialisation of other cultures does not legitimate meting out the same treatment to the ‘West’, and for treating the West as a generic bogey (Herzfeld 2001: 152). Such views, Herzfeld maintains, not only essentialise the ‘other’ but they also essentialise ‘the West’. For this reason it is important to recognise that the culture concept is also (mis)used by authoritarian leaders who argue that democracy or human rights are incompatible with local traditions and values.
From African dictators in the 1970s to Asian government officials in the 1990s there have been two sets of arguments: first, democracy is a luxury that can and should only come after a certain stage of economic development and stability has been achieved; and second, democracy is a Western individualistic value that is not compatible with more ‘traditional’ or kin-based societies. These arguments held great sway in the 1990s until the financial crisis in Asia undermined the ‘Asian values’ position and silenced most of its supporters (Thompson 2001: 154).
While I would argue that cultural beliefs and ideologies are certainly important and do affect individuals’ understandings and behaviour, I am sceptical of the essentialising discourses that view culture as an unproblematic, monolithic and static entity. Furthermore, I find quite problematic the tendency of some scholars to see culture as a barrier to democratisation whilst claiming to be objective, and thereby ignoring how one’s own behaviour and understandings are also influenced by cultural beliefs. I argue that if the cultural argument is to be applied, it is necessary to examine critically the cultural attitudes and biases of both donors and recipients.
In addition to arguing that culture is a barrier to democracy promotion, some policy makers and scholars have maintained that the authoritarian legacies in various countries mitigate the development of a vibrant civil society and democracy (Brzezinski 2002: 196; Gershman and Allen 2006; McFaul 2002: 264; Nodia 2002: 203). In an article co-written with Michael Allen, the President of NED, Carl Gershman, suggests that the failures of and backlash against democracy promotion are a ‘by-product of so-called hybrid regimes’ (Gershman and Allen 2006: 37).
Hybrid regimes, according to Gershman and Allen, are those that have certain formally democratic procedures, including the holding of relatively free (if not fair) elections and allowing civil society organisations to function. In other words, hybrid regimes are procedural democracies where the substantive elements are either weakly constituted or missing. Clearly, societies do not exist in a vacuum and it very important to examine and understand how the past has influenced and continues to influence the present. In discussing the lack of civic participation or democracy in Arab countries, there is again a tendency to argue that decades of authoritarian rule have left a legacy of ‘widespread political apathy’ (Hawthorne 2004: 10). Meanwhile, in the post-Soviet states certain practices (such as corruption and clan-based rule), which were common under Communist rule, persist and have influenced how the current policies have been interpreted, adapted, and operationalised.
While recognising the importance of history, I would argue it is important not to attribute all of the present problems to the legacies and memories of the past. In the field of democracy promotion in particular, Cold War ideologies have influenced and shaped the design and implementation of policies and practices. In the 1990s these ideologies had engendered the notion that everything created prior to the collapse of communism was either ‘not true civil society’ or that it was polluted and contaminated by the Communist legacy and had to be purged before true civil society and democracy could flourish (Mandel 2002). The reality is far more complex and it is worth considering how the past is interpreted and instrumentalised by different parties under different circumstances.
For instance, in recent years there has been growing selective remembrance (that is, forgetting about the political repressions and lack of freedoms) and intensifying nostalgia for the ‘stability’ of the Soviet past and a questioning of the benefits of democracy, which is linked in the minds of many post-Soviet citizens with the introduction of the shock therapies that led to poverty, gross inequality, social exclusion, gangster capitalism and the rise of the oligarchs (see box 4.2). Democracy promotion in Eastern Europe was also affected by the close association between democracy and market reform programmes. Because the rapidly implemented market reforms and shock therapies of the early 1990s led to vast inequality, poverty and social exclusion, people soon became disillusioned, not only with the market reforms but also with the associated programme of democracy building.
Genetically engineered civil society
Katherine Verdery (1996) contends that since the demise of communism, Western capitalist societies have come to believe that they have a monopoly on truth and can therefore dispense wisdom about how to build the ‘proper’ forms of democracy and capitalism. This, the critics charge, led to the promotion of a single (i.e.Western) model of civil society that ignores other traditions and understandings (Parekh 2004: 22). According to Thomas Carothers, ‘Democracy promoters pass through these countries [in Africa, Asia and the Middle East] on hurried civil society assessment missions and declare that “very little civil society exists” because they have found only a handful of Westernised NGOs devoted to non-partisan public-interest advocacy work on the national side’ (Carothers 1999: 248). Since donor-defined civil society (that is, professional NGOs) did not exist in many places or was believed to have been tainted, donors engaged in a process of building society from scratch (Mandel 2002: 282).
This led to the promotion of a particular model of civil society and democracy, and encouraged the creation of what I refer to as ‘genetically engineered civil societies.’ With the injection of external funding (the growth hormones), these genetically engineered civil societies experienced spectacularly rapid growth that would have not occurred organically. Similar to genetically modified crops, they also began to colonise and squeeze out all indigenous competitors, becoming the dominant type in their environment. In the process, in many places existing civil society lost its diversity and was reduced to professionalised NGOs that were engaged in advocacy or service delivery and that supported, in theory if not in practice, liberal Western values. Through this approach, which has also been termed ‘institutional modelling’ (Carothers 2000), organisations and actors were rewarded on the basis of their success in imitating that particular model and its associated discourses.
Subsequently, groups that did not replicate these practices and discourses, such as nationalist organisations and activist groups, were ignored or marginalised by donors and soon came to view themselves as real civil society, in contrast to the donor-created and- supported NGOs. In Latin America, as Jenny Pearce (2004) discusses, this led to divisions between organisations that considered themselves builders, and those that considered themselved critics, of democracy building. The critics (social organisations) not only view the builders (professionalised NGOs) as having been co-opted by the state, but also consider them as advocates of the neo-liberal economic agenda (Pearce 2004: 63). Sabine Freizer also differentiates between the donor-supported ‘neo-liberal’ and the ‘communal’ civil societies that have developed in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and discusses the lack of exchange between these parallel forms (Freizer 2004). She points out the lack of grassroots support or recognition for such neo-liberal organisations. Such developments have led to discussions about the unintended consequences of civil society strengthening programmes in many parts of the world and concerns that NGOs are donor driven, upwardly accountable and disconnected from their own communities and constituencies (Abramson 1999; Adamson 2002; Bruno 1997; Glasius et al. 2004; Hann 2004; Helms 2003; Hemment 2004; Henderson 2003; Howell and Pearce 2002; Ishkanian 2003, 2004; Mendelson 2002; McMahon 2002; Pearce 2004; Obadare 2004; Sampson 2002; Wedel 2001).
In addition to the funding of projects and organisations, a major component of the technical aspect of democracy promotion programmes involved the capacity building and training of trainers. Capacity building has been used to teach individuals a series of skills, including how to create and manage NGOs, how to apply for grants, how to prepare reports and so on. Having participated in a number of capacity building exercises designed for NGO activists in Armenia, I found that training, in addition to teaching a particular skill (for example, how to fundraise) also implicitly communicated the donors’ expectations by teaching local actors which topics were open to discussion and which kinds of knowledge and discourses were considered valuable. While never criticising them publicly, many NGO members I interviewed in Armenia complained that the training often provided superficial, one-size fits all answers to problems, and information that was not applicable to the local context. They also resented the large sums spent on the trainers’ per diem, their five-star hotel stays and business air travel. In neighbouring Georgia, where many of the same policies and training were also implemented, a Georgian NGO leader writes:
Some [Western] specialists come without the slightest knowledge of the countries they are advising. The latter generously share the American experience in organizing election campaigns and fundraising for candidates for state legislatures, or perhaps the Indian experience of community-building in traditionally caste-bound villages. I do not deny that all the information may be of some theoretical interest to some local specialists, but I will say that in Georgia the practical use of all those lectures, seminars, and training sessions was pretty much nonexistent … Expert knowledge of India, combined with complete ignorance of Georgia … was both insulting and humorous, neither facilitating the learning process nor contributing to the reputation of the international experts. (Haindrava 2003: 77)
The popularity of capacity building continues unabated. The following excerpt from the USAID (2004) ‘A Year in Iraq: Building Democracy’ report demonstrates the importance ascribed to capacity building. As part of the US democracy promotion effort in Iraq, a former official from Colorado was asked to write a guide explaining how to run a meeting, how to encourage people to speak and contribute, and how to resolve disagreements and reach decisions through compromise. The guide was translated into Arabic and distributed to all members of local councils in Iraq. In order to assess how these lessons had been absorbed, a district council meeting was observed. According to the report:
At the district council meeting, the Iraqi experiment in democracy seemed to be running off the tracks when a couple of council members began shouting their opinions around the table, appearing to be angry enough to come to blows. (USAID 2004: 12)
The USAID observer was told not to worry by an Iraqi council member, who explained that the shouting was only theatrics and that it would not disrupt the process. While seemingly accepting that this was ‘the Iraqi way’, the authors express their satisfaction that ‘the shouting soon gave way to constructive debate; the council agreed on some issues and deferred others before it adjourned peacefully’ (USAID 2004: 12).
Although donor policies are indeed an important factor, we must not disregard the agency and the role of the NGO leaders and members in developing or transition countries who, for various reasons, ranging from a sincere belief in the values of civil society and democracy to the more banal, pragmatic need to make a living, embraced the models, discourses, ideologies and projects promoted by donors. In the context of economic upheaval, impoverishment and crises, this led to some opportunistic use of aid funding. The misuse of aid money is hardly a shocking revelation: however, the actual misappropriation or perceived misuse of funds intended for democracy and civil society promotion not only has a negative impact on how NGOs are perceived (such as corrupt and opportunistic), but also on how the ideas they promote are received.
I recognise the diversity of civil society actors’ motivations and I do not wish in any way to portray all NGO actors as being driven by economic incentives. However, the fact remains that in the 1990s, creating or joining NGOs became an economic survival strategy from countries as far apart as Albania to Zambia, thanks to the influx of donor aid (Celichowski 2004: 75; Ishkanian 2004; Mandel 2002: 286; Obadare 2004: 159; Sampson 2002: 307). These so-called ‘grant-eaters’ (Ishkanian 2003: 29), ‘civil society entrepreneurs’ (Obadare 2004: 159) or ‘profiteers’ (Kaldor et al. 2007: 111) cashed in on the ‘gold rush’ by engaging in civil society strengthening programmes. Of course individuals adapt, manipulate and negotiate ideologies, discourses and projects to fit their needs, but within the context of aid encounters they very rarely publicly question the validity of these approaches and ideas, even if they do so privately and off the record. Whereas I understand the potential costs of speaking out (including losing funding and being labelled a troublemaker), unfortunately, silence has often been interpreted by donors as a sign of acceptance of the status quo.
Therefore I argue that donors’ definitions of democracy building and civil society, and the operationalisation of civil society, have affected local processes of democracy building and have raised questions about the viability of externally driven democracy promotion programmes.
Conflating democracy promotion with regime change
Finally, in recent years the crisis of democracy in the West has made democracy promotion much more difficult as claims of undemocratic behaviour in others are met with charges of hypocrisy. The ex post facto justification for the Iraq war as a form of democracy promotion has meant that democracy promotion has been confused or conflated with regime change. At present, suspicion about and resistance to US democracy promotion activities in developing and post-socialist countries is at an all-time high (Carothers 2006). Far from having won hearts and minds in the Middle East, it appears that the US justification for the war in Iraq has ‘given democracy promotion a bad name’ (Halperin 2006). The perceived presence of the US ‘shadowy guiding hand’ in the colour revolutions has also intensified the criticism and scepticism toward democracy promotion in the former Soviet states. Four years on from the first colour revolution (that is, the Rose Revolution in Georgia), optimism has declined and democratic development remains under serious question in all the countries that experienced a colour revolution (Beissinger 2006; see box 4.3). Following these revolutions, allegations of interventionism and imperialism have intensified as the authorities in many former Soviet states attribute the ‘directive’ and ‘top down approaches’ to foreign meddling in what they consider internal political affairs.
Such criticisms are not limited to Iraq or the former Soviet states. For instance, US support for the NGO SUMATE (Join Up) in Venezuela, which has received support from NED and USAID, is described by critics as having been created with the sole purpose of getting rid of President Hugo Chavez and replacing him with someone who is on friendlier terms with the US (Gindin 2005; see box 4.4). William Robinson describes the objectives of US democracy promotion in Venezuela as undermining authentic democracy by
gaining control over popular movements for democratisation, keeping a lid on popular democracy movements, and limiting any change that may be brought about by mass democratisation movements so that the outcomes of democracy struggles do not threaten the elite order and integration into global capitalism. (Robinson and Gindin 2005)
As the development of civil society and, indeed, democracy is no longer solely restricted to national boundaries, outside actors, be they foreign donors, diasporic networks or global civil society activists, cannot be excluded from the equation. Global actors are implicated in and shape national/local processes in a multitude of ways, including providing financial assistance, training, and supporting exchanges and education abroad. Actually existing global civil society is complex and contradictory (Kaldor et al. 2007: 119); it can contribute to peace, stability and justice just as it can foment conflict, instability and exclusion. While some global civil society actors (such as NGOs) are engaged in democracy promotion through civil society strengthening programmes, this is not the most important contribution of global civil society. The greatest contribution of global civil society is its potential to enhance communication by creating ‘islands of engagement’ (Kaldor 2003: 160), where diverse actors will find opportunities for discussion, participation and debate. If global civil society can do this and also encourage greater self-reflection by Northern actors about the state of their own democracy (and not only discussions about the status of democracy in the South), then it will go a long way in revitalising and reinvigorating democracy and of course, civil society.
The author would like to thank Martin Albrow, Marlies Glasius, Mary Kaldor and Hakan Seckinelgin for their useful comments and suggestions on previous drafts of this chapter.
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