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Revitalizing Democracy Assistance: The Challenge of USAID November 24, 2009

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Each Tuesday BFAD features a guest blogger- these are experts from a variety of backgrounds writing about what they know best.  This week features Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Revitalizing Democracy Assistance:  The Challenge of USAID

by Thomas Carothers

(Drawn from the new Carnegie Endowment report by the same name.)

One of the many different elements of the overall challenge of reforming U.S. foreign assistance is the complex domain of democracy assistance, a sprawling, multifaceted array of programs funded USAID, the Department of State, National Endowment for Democracy, Department of Justice, Millennium Challenge Corporation, and Department of Defense. As much and often more so than with many other areas of foreign aid, democracy support is closely interwoven with U.S. geostrategic policies.  It has developed rapidly in the past two decades but currently faces significant questions about whether it is adapting adequately to meet the new complexities of a world in which democracy is now stagnant rather than advancing, democracy promotion has lost much legitimacy due to damage inflicted on it during the Bush years, and resistance to such assistance is much more widespread than ever before.

It might be possible to attempt a comprehensive reordering and reform of the overall domain of U.S. democracy aid. Yet such a task is unlikely to be achieved—it is hard enough in Washington to try to reinvigorate any one federal agency’s work in a substantial area.  Trying to carry out reforms in significant aid programs across five or six  agencies at once would almost certainly founder.  A better way to proceed is institution by institution, focusing one at a time on strengthening the work of each of the major actors in democracy aid.

USAID is the natural starting point for such an effort.  It is the largest source of U.S. democracy aid, spending in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion dollars a year on democracy programs.  Moreover, although USAID has some strengths in democracy work—above some important accumulated institutional knowledge and experienced staff—its larger institutional maladies of recent years undercut the quality of its assistance.

One such problem is that of bureaucratization.  USAID’s basic operating procedures are a study in dysfunctional bureaucratization.   They cause inflexibility, cumbersomeness, slowness, cookie cutter approaches, and a lack of flexibility in its programming.  Such characteristics, while harmful to all areas of assistance, are especially hard on democracy support.  Political aid, such as work with elections, political parties, civic activists, legislatures, and independent media, entails outsiders involving themselves in what are almost always unique, complex, sensitive political processes.  Heavily bureaucratized forms of action fit such processes very poorly.

Another core problem is the externality and consequent lack of local ownership of USAID’s basic operating methods.  In much of USAID’s programming U.S. organizations dominate every step of the assistance process, including design, implementation, and evaluation.  People and organizations from the countries that USAID is seeking to assist play some role in these various stages, but often a greatly secondary one compared to the role of U.S. organizations coming in and out of the country to carry out the programs.  The inevitable result is a low level of local attachment to the programs and weak sustainability of whatever gains the aid achieves.  As with bureaucratization, this problem of externality hurts all of USAID’s work yet it falls particularly hard on democracy aid. If people in a country struggling to reform its political system perceive that sensitive endeavors such as strengthening political parties, revamping democratic civic education, or reforming the legislature are the work of outside actors (especially foreign governments with significant geopolitical interests) the legitimacy of such efforts will be questioned.

In addition to these broad operational shortcomings, democracy work at USAID also suffers from the weak integration of such work in the overall institution. Despite more than twenty years of democracy programming by USAID, such work remains a disfavored stepchild in an agency whose heart is still wedded primarily to socioeconomic work. Signs of this are multiple: none of the last four USAID administrators has any background or apparent strong interest in democracy-related assistance; the senior level of career professionals at USAID is dominated by people who rose within the organization as specialists in socioeconomic work; democracy and governance programs are housed within a bureau primarily devoted to other issues which have been receiving much more attention from USAID’s leadership; and the democracy and governance “cadre” has not been strongly supported institutionally.

The new leadership team at USAID will face a daunting agenda of institutional reform issues crying out for attention.  Given the importance of democracy support as part of U.S. foreign policy overall, this team should be sure to pay attention to strengthening USAID democracy work along with everything else it does.  Focusing on the three key issues identified above would be a useful way forward in this regard:

De-bureaucratization: the agency needs a far-reaching process of de-bureaucratization involving a review of every step of the assistance process, with special focus on the phases of procurement, implementation, and evaluation, aimed at finding ways at every step to streamline procedures and increase flexibility, speed, adaptability, and innovation.  For such a change to occur it will be crucial for those at the State Department, White House, and Congress who hold the keys to USAID’s future to avoid the almost automatic tendency to think that stricter controls, more regulations, and tighter procedures will yield better performance. The application of such thinking to USAID again and again over the years is precisely what has led to the bureaucratization responsible for its troubled performance.

Reducing externality and increasing local ownership:  Reducing the externality of USAID’s work does not necessarily mean channeling more funds directly to organizations within aid-receiving countries rather than through U.S. implementers, although such a shift could be part of such an effort.  It is more about changing how USAID works with U.S. partners and implementers.  It is about creating assistance mechanisms that encourage and allow U.S. organizations to create real partnerships with local actors, in which the local actors have a substantial and sustained say in what the goals will be and what methods will be employed to achieve them. One important area of reform in this vein is the whole domain of contracting.  The very notion of attempting to support processes of political change in other countries through extremely detailed, fixed-term, technically oriented contracts in which U.S. implementing organizations provide a predefined list of “services” to USAID is highly questionable.

Strengthening the place of democracy and governance work:  This entails both ensuring the democracy and governance work is a well-established, well-supported part of USAID’s core agenda and finding ways to incorporate democracy and governance values, insights and approaches into the traditional areas of development assistance.  This will require a combination of clear leadership from the top as well as various specific measures, including:  bolstering the Office of Democracy and Governance; increasing the number of democracy and governance positions in USAID’s country missions, consolidating recent initiatives to improve training in democracy work, and creating incentives to increase the integration of a democracy and governance focus into all areas of USAID’s work.

The key to achieving these somewhat technocratic but nevertheless indispensable reforms to USAID’s democracy and governance work will be determined, focused leadership at the agency. Although USAID is a decentralized institution, with field missions having significant control over their own activities, major institutional changes can and must be driven from the top.  Such leadership will have to combine a range of important attributes: 1) a commitment to the value and importance of democracy and governance as part of the overall U.S. development agenda and a genuine interest in how such assistance works; 2) a willingness to devote significant time and attention to a stratum of institutional issues that, while fundamental to doing better on democracy and governance, are inevitably detail-oriented and unglamorous; 3) a willingness to acknowledge USAID’s shortcomings and not adopt an automatic defensive posture in the face of critical reviews and challenging reform proposals; 4) an ability to take on the many vested interests that will feel threatened by change; 5) an ability to work closely with the State Department, Congress and White House at every step of the process.

Revitalization of USAID’s democracy and governance work could serve as a foundation for a broader effort to reinvigorate other parts of the U.S. democracy aid landscape.  It would also be a vital signal that the Obama administration is moving beyond its instinctive, understandable caution on democracy promotion to forge lasting changes that will help the United States meet the serious challenges that democracy’s uncertain global fortunes now pose.



1. bob press - August 20, 2010

Thank you fo the article; changes are certainly needed, as noted.

But what about human rights, as opposed to procedural democracy aid (to strengthen institutions). And those engaged in human rights advocacy in the early stages of non-violent resistance get little attention if any from donors.

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