Democracy Assistance: Scholars Look at New Ways to Evaluate Programs on the Ground

What are the preconditions for democracy? National identity? Economic wealth? Relative economic equality? How does an unstable, illiberal democracy become a well-functioning, stable one? And what role can assistance play in a country that is transitioning to democracy?

On March 5–6, 2007, the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and The National Academies co-sponsored a conference at Stanford that opened with just such questions. The conference, Understanding Democratic Transitions and Consolidation from Case Studies: Lessons for Democracy Assistance, brought scholars on democracy and development together with democracy assistance practitioners from organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), National Endowment for Democracy, and Freedom House. Their goal: to review research and methodologies in the field of “applied democratic development.”

“Mobilize democracy as a feminist movement and you mobilize half the population worldwide. It is the same for farmers.”

Applied democratic development is a relatively new field, one that “melds insights from the academic, policy, and practitioner worlds,” according to USAID. Although democracy and governance programs have a 20-year history in U.S. foreign policy, there are few comparative analyses of the effectiveness of this programming, the various factors that interact with it, and how these factors affect each program’s likelihood of success. Recognizing the limited rigor in best-practice handbooks and in-house program evaluations, USAID turned to the academic community to help assess and improve methodologies for cross-national research—research that will ultimately provide recommendations for improving existing programs and identify optimal conditions for future ones.

Commissioned to help with this outreach, The National Academies asked scholars including CDDRL and CISAC faculty member Jeremy M. Weinstein to join a Committee on the Evaluation of USAID Democracy Assistance Programs (CEUDAP). The six-member committee will oversee an independent, third-party study on how to apply quantitative political science research to on-the-ground democracy assistance programs. In addition to ongoing committee meetings in Washington D.C., CEUDAP held a workshop on democracy and governance indicators and the Understanding Democratic Transitions and Consolidation From Case Studies conference in order to draw on the work and insight of a larger academic community.

At the end of the yearlong project, CEUDAP will have produced three field studies and a set of recommendations for USAID and other democracy assistance organizations and will incorporate the conference proceedings into the final CEUDAP report. This information will help not only democracy assistance practitioners but also policymakers weighing which programs to support, in what countries.

CDDRL director Michael A. McFaul, who co-authored Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine's Democratic Breakthrough (2006) with Anders Aslund, opened the conference with an overview of the CEUDAP project and goals for the discussion over the next two days. He also outlined CDDRL’s own research project, sponsored by the Smith Richardson Foundation, which seeks to assess all external dimensions of democratization, including European efforts as well as democracy assistance programs conducted by private actors. “We in academia have to do a better job of helping our colleagues in government understand what works and what does not,” McFaul remarked. “Democracy assistance is simply too important an enterprise to continue to do without learning from past successes and failures.”

In the first morning session, CEUDAP chair and George Mason University professor Jack Gladstone moderated a panel discussion on democratic transitions that included McFaul and CDDRL senior research scholar Terry L. Karl. Two more afternoon panels also looked at various factors in transitions. Does research support a connection between state strength and regime type? What does democratization in Germany, France, and Spain tell us about preconditions for democratic transitions? Can external actors manipulate the impact of wealth distributions, since countries with highly stratified economies have the hardest time making a transition to democracy?

Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy and political transparency, wanted to know what the discussion’s implications were for a democracy practitioner. Even in the non-applied fields of democratic development and “quality of democracy,” someone offered, researchers are often working toward a shifting target with incomplete information. Risto Volanen, state secretary in the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, suggested changing how we frame democratization. “Democracy is a long historical process that happens in the mind of ordinary humans,” he said. “On both sides of the Atlantic, we misunderstand the condition of our democracies.”

The second morning examined procedures that work better in consolidating, rather than transitioning to, democracy—stabilizing new democracies rather than trying to “move countries from column A, undemocratic, to column B, democratic,” for example. Weinstein suggested looking at indicators of growth rather than growth itself and trying to define a “set of different transition paths we could imagine each country taking.”

In the panel that followed, CDDRL democracy program coordinator Larry Diamond and CDDRL predoctoral fellow Amichai Magen discussed combining democratic assistance with other forms of aid to promote consolidation. “Beware,” Diamond told the room. “None of this works without political will.” He draws from experience as well as research; Diamond was senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, perhaps one of the highest-profile experiments in democracy intervention this decade.

While participants disagreed on specific, ground-level dynamics of democratic development, a few points of consensus broadly took shape. Most people in the room —scholars, policymakers, and practitioners alike— recognized the need to have realistic expectations and to take a long view of democratization. Another area of agreement was that intervention seemed to work best in countries where internal forces are already moving. Finally, a precondition for new democracies seemed to be the development of the “democratic mind”—a democratic culture marked by a robust and engaged civil society. “Mobilize democracy as a feminist movement and you mobilize half the population worldwide,” Volanen pointed out. “It is the same for farmers.”

Kathryn Stoner, CDDRL associate director for research, moderated the first of two roundtables that concluded the conference. Seeking consensus on factors at work in democratization, many in the room realized just how elusive a precise set of guidelines for democracy assistance and intervention actually was. But there are many more months left on the CEUDAP project timetable and many more angles to come at the issue from.

“This is not physics,” Diamond said. “It’s virtually impossible to control for all forms of data.”