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Can the International Community Deliver on the 'Democratic Imperative'?

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal

The UK’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, delivered an excellent speech last Tuesday (12 February) on the importance of international efforts to support democracy in the developing world, or what he called ‘the democratic imperative’. The speech was particularly refreshing in its recognition that the road to democracy can be considerably bumpy and that democratic consolidation remains deeply problematic for many of the emerging democracies of the ‘Third Wave’. Initial expectations that these countries would move in a linear fashion towards consolidated, institutionalised democracies have not been met. Instead, a majority of them have come to occupy a precarious middle ground between outright authoritarianism and full-fledged democracy. These so-called ‘hybrid regimes’, which combine authoritarian traits with some formal features of a democracy, have become increasingly common in regions ranging from Africa to Asia to Latin America.

Above all, democratic consolidation requires the evolution of a democratic political culture where all the main political players, parties, organised interests, forces and institutions view and accept democracy as ‘the only game in town’. This, in essence, is the main concept embedded in Adam Przeworski’s definition of democracy as ‘institutionalised uncertainty’: in a democracy, all outcomes are in principle unknown and open to contest among key players (e.g. who will win an electoral contest, what policies will be enacted) – except that such outcomes are to be determined within the framework of pre-established democratic rules. In other words, the democratic process needs to be viewed as the only legitimate means to gain power and to channel/process demands. In hybrid regimes, a broad consensus among both the elites and the mass public to uphold democracy as the only viable system of rule is still lacking. And as the recent explosion of violence in Kenya illustrates, such political systems can be considerably unstable, unpredictable, or both.

As a result, how to engage with hybrid regimes has emerged as one of the main challenges for donors providing democracy assistance, especially within the context of poor countries. Yet for such efforts to prove successful, several issues need to be addressed. Here I will highlight just a few that pick up on Miliband’s remarks.

  1. There is a problematic tendency to conflate democratisation with state-building processes

    Many of the countries stuck in incomplete democratisation processes, especially poor ones, are also characterised by weak states. Thus, they are not only trying to democratise, but also more fundamentally, to build capable states. Yet to the extent that international thinking on democracy assistance has considered the possibility of state-building as part of the democratisation process, it has too easily assumed that the fostering of democracy and state-building are one and the same thing – an assumption that seems implicit in Miliband’s remarks.

    However, the conflation of these two processes is at best problematic . The relationship between democratisation and building strong and capable state institutions can be complex. While the agenda on ‘good governance’ tends to assume that ‘all good things go together’, to some degree, these two processes pull in opposite directions. For instance, democratisation often entails establishing checks and balances and diffusing power more evenly across a greater number of actors both within and outside government. On the other hand, strengthening state capacity may call for greater autonomy and centralisation of power. Miliband also highlights that ‘fledging democracies need to build the capacity of local as well as national institutions’. This is doubtlessly true, but again it is important to recognise the tensions embedded in decentralisation efforts: in settings where effective and capable institutions are lacking, political, administrative and fiscal decentralisation may serve to strengthen local power brokers or agents of violence rather than to empower local citizens.

  2. The impetus for democratisation needs to come from within, so donors need to be realistic about what can be achieved from the outside

    To be successful, democratisation processes need to be driven from within and supported by key domestic actors. As illustrated by the case of Iraq, efforts to impose democracy from the outside without the necessary domestic support are likely to be unsustainable, if not to backfire. This is particularly true of democratic consolidation and the creation of effective democratic accountability mechanisms, both of which require active and effective domestic constituents. As Miliband points out, external actors can play a significant role in democratisation processes, acting as triggers (e.g. the end of the Cold War) and influencing the interests, positioning and preferences of strategic domestic actors who may be in favour of democratic reforms. But they cannot act as substitutes when domestic support is lacking, and donors need to be both realistic and humble about what can be achieved from the outside. This makes efforts to promote democracy through military intervention particularly problematic and even counterproductive.

  3. Donors need to engage with a variety of actors, particularly those outside the donors’ ‘zone of comfort’

    In his speech, Miliband spoke about the need for the international community to support the ‘civilian surge’ (i.e. bottom-up pressures for democratisation) and to channel democracy assistance through civil society organisations (ranging from trade unions to the media) to counterbalance the power of the state. Donors have already made considerable progress in this direction, as attested by a multiplicity of efforts to support civic groups, strengthen the judiciary and foster a free, independent and responsible media. However, donors have tended to give primacy to some actors over others, and have not fully engaged with groups that may represent useful entry points for international democracy assistance.

    Political parties, in particular, have been neglected by the international assistance community – and they did not feature once in Miliband’s remarks. Yet political parties remain one of the weakest links in democratic development in many of the democracies emerging in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Latin America, and research suggests that their weak capacity and durability constitutes a major obstacle to the institutionalisation of democracy. Donors need to overcome their reluctance to engage with political parties on the grounds that such work can be too political or even partisan. They can channel their efforts towards strengthening the institutionalisation of parties (i.e. internal rules, funding, how to develop a programmatic base) in order to help reduce the strong personalisation of politics and ‘clientelistic’ structures prevalent in most developing countries.

  4. Donors need to come to terms with the contradictions between long-term processes of democracy and the need for results

    Finally, while Miliband eloquently states the need to be on the side of democracy, it seems equally important to emphasise that strengthening democratic governance requires a long-term commitment. Building democracy is necessarily a prolonged and non-linear process. This calls for patience and willingness to accept setbacks. However, because of the pressure to show quick results, donors continue to pursue forms of promoting democracy that are too short-term (i.e. focused on foundational elections but less on providing support to future elections and/or strengthening other key institutions), and involve frequent changes in policy direction. Donors need to come to terms with the potential tensions that arise in the kinds of assistance that they provide due to these very different time horizons.

Highlighting the challenges embedded in hybrid regimes does not imply that the risks of democratisation are not worth undertaking. A deeper understanding of the problems that these regimes face is desirable because it provides a more realistic assessment of how democratic politics function in settings that remain undefined as well as a sobering appraisal of what these incipient and fragile democracies can be expected to achieve. We have certainly not reached the ‘end of history’, as Francis Fukuyama (1992) once enthusiastically proclaimed. On the other hand, it is also undeniable that some considerable gains have been made, at the very least in terms of an (almost) universal recognition of the primacy of democratic forms and the kinds of political transformations that have taken place throughout the developing world. How to give substance to those forms so that they don’t ossify as a hollow core of democracy is a formidable endeavour, but one that, as Miliband argues in his speech, is well worth pursuing. However imperfect, democracy is still better than the available alternatives.