Democracy is being overlooked in the field of international development. Take a look at the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG); strengthening democratic institutions is simply not a priority. Not that this list is the end-all-be-all, it simply represents an important trend. As discussed in this recent NY Times article by Peter Baker, even President Obama has not yet made democracy abroad a top priority.
We could invest billions in education, health, gender equity, and other important initiatives, but without a foundation of accountable and responsive democratic government, funds may be spent inefficiently and used to maintain corrupt (and mostly ineffective) structures of resource distribution. In my estimate, democracy one of the most powerful forces for social good in the world and is being entirely underutilized.
My guess is that democracy is being undervalued for two main reasons. First, large international organizations like the UN, World Bank, World Vision, etc. attempt to be apolitical and categorically nonpartisan in their work. In many developing countries, working for free and fair elections is essentially the same as working against the regime in power, thus being perceived as partisan behavior.
Second, the severe degree of need in the developing world seems to legitimize a myopic strategy for change. When making choices about allocating scarce resources, it’s difficult for nonprofit/international organizations to invest in long-term democratic transformation in the midst of the “urgency of now.” When given the choice, they will ensure that bellies are full before working toward contested and inclusive elections. This is despite the fact that, in the long run, a well-functioning democracy may be a far better mechanism for filling bellies.
To optimize the efforts of global philanthropy, we ought to make democratization a priority among donors, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations working in the field of development. We must invest more seriously in building the civil and political societies of fledgling democracies if we are to move beyond the aid ineffectiveness that has plagued the efforts of the West for the past 50 years.