Monday, February 23, 2009

Overlooking Democracy

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.


Adam said...

I've got a couple issues with that opening paragraph, Dave, and your overall sentiment.

1. You're faulting the UN -- a multinational, multi-governance system with a Communist superpower among its five most crucial players -- for not including pro-democratic trends as one of its primary goals. I would argue that for a cooperative organization built upon diametrically opposed models of governance, the UN has been geared far more towards the ideals of democracy than not. As a caveat, I understand your point that the MDGs might be best solved by strengthening democratic institutions; most Westerners would likely agree. But to write it that plainly is simply an impossibility organizationally speaking.

2. The article you linked to provides a myriad of reasons why Obama has not made the explicit spread democracy abroad a key issue. For one, he's attempting to create a contrast with neoconservative values of the Bush doctrine. Don't rule out more adroit means of achieving the same ends. Strengthening our dialogue with non-democratic nations, as he's suggested he'll do, could have a far greater affect than arbitrarily throwing money around that frankly we don't have right now. More importantly, Obama's focus has been on strengthening democratic values HERE. Time and time again, he's said he'll increase the transparency of our government; he's making that promise a reality via video addresses, continued emails, and websites such as which explicitly outlines what he's doing with our tax dollars.

In general, Dave, I think your sentiment is misplaced. The UN and President Obama have a lot on their plate, and priorities are made accordingly. I think both are making important strides towards the end goals you discuss without the divisive overtones exemplified by the last eight years of our foreign policy.

Dave said...


Those are both excellent points. On your first point, democracy is already a top priority for the United Nations, consider this link:

In my opinion, the UN's failure is not in ignoring democracy, but failing to make the link between development and democracy. At the end of the day, I'm not sure they are the right institution to do the work that needs to be done in this area. However, in articulating international goals, I think they've fallen short.

In regards to your point on Obama, I agree with you on the whole. Bush made democracy a priority but had a terrible approach with awful consequences. I am not arguing that we should subvert non-democratic regimes, as was the neoconservative doctrine of Bush. Instead, we should strengthen existing democracies through investment in civil society, international accountability, etc, ensuring that they work will for the poor.

Again, my aim to to support existing democratic institutions for the purposes of development, not overthrow the Chinese government.

Thanks for your push back, good thoughts for sure-

Dave said...

Yeah, in re-reading, I definitely did not make it clear what I was arguing for. It sounded pretty imperialistic, didn't it?

So, my post was really about strengthening democratic institutions in weak democracies for the purposes of development, not in imposing democracy on the entire world.

Sorry for sounding like William Kristol, thanks for helping my clarify the position...

AC said...

One book to explore the nexus of development and democracy -- India, Development and Participation by Sen & Dreze. Fabulous stuff!

Glad you clarified the post, though -- was a bit wary of the uncharacteristic tone the first time around! Hope all is well :)