Should American Democracy Assistance become more European? Lessons from EU and US Democracy Assistance in Ethiopia

Philippines Conference Room


The U.S. and the E.U. are often seen as fundamentally different democracy promoters. It has been argued that the U.S. has a more political approach, which is confrontational vis-à-vis host governments and promotes democracy bottom-up via civil society. The E.U., on the other hand, is perceived as more developmental, focusing on non-confrontational projects that are mostly top-down or focused on civil society organizations not critical of the government. The U.S.’s political approach has been criticized for being too donor-led, unilateral, and hardly respecting country ownership. But should American democracy assistance become more European?

Based on research on E.U. and U.S. democracy assistance programs in Ethiopia, CDDRL Postdoctoral Fellow Karen Del Biondo explains the causes and consequences of a political and developmental approach to democracy assistance. She argues that the E.U. has indeed taken a more developmental approach, which can be explained by the European Commission’s commitment to the Paris Declaration principles on aid effectiveness, including ownership, alignment and, harmonization. This was possible because of the relatively autonomous position of the Commission vis-à-vis the Member States and the European Parliament. In contrast, USAID does not enjoy this bureaucratic autonomy, and has therefore paid lip service to aid effectiveness. Del Biondo discusses the advantages and disadvantages of a political and developmental approach in a semi-authoritarian regime such as Ethiopia. She finds that, although the impact of E.U. democracy assistance in Ethiopia can be questioned, the E.U.’s developmental approach has made the government of Ethiopia more open to E.U. democracy assistance, while the U.S.’s political approach led to a backlash.

Speaker Bio:

Karen Del Biondo is a 2012-2013 postdoctoral fellow at the CDDRL. Her research is funded with a Fulbright-Schuman award and a postdoctoral grant from the Belgian-American Educational Foundation (BAEF). She holds an MA in Political Science (International Relations) from Ghent University and an MA in European Studies from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. In 2007-2008 she obtained a Bernheim fellowship for an internship in European affairs at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Permanent Representation to the EU. 

Karen Del Biondo obtained her PhD at the Centre for EU Studies, Ghent University in September 2012 with a dissertation entitled ‘Norms, self-interest and effectiveness: Explaining double standards in EU reactions to violations of democratic principles in sub-Saharan Africa’. Her PhD research was funded by the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (FWO). Apart from her PhD research, she has been involved in the research project ‘The Substance of EU Democracy Promotion’ (Ghent University/University of Mannheim/Centre of European Policy Studies) and has published on the securitisation of EU development policies. In January 2011 she conducted field research in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her postdoctoral research will focus on the comparison between EU and US democracy assistance in sub-Saharan Africa.