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Democratisation's Third Wave and the Challenges of Democratic Deepening: Assessing International Democracy Assistance and Lessons Learned

Working paper

Written by Alina Rocha Menocal

Working paper

This study focuses on democratisation and democracy assistance in the developing world. It provides an overview of the democratisation processes that have swept across the developing world since the 1980s and explores some of the main challenges facing many of these incipient democratic regimes. Moving from theory to practice, the paper also analyses some of the most important forms of democracy assistance that donors have undertaken to support democratisation processes over the past two decades.

The report is divided into four main chapters. Chapter 1 defines the parameters of this study and situates democratisation processes and democratisation support in the wider context of governance changes and donor policy choices. Democratisation evolved from a trickle into a wave in the developing world with the end of the Cold War. Democratisation assistance has become a substantial element in the development agenda of many donors, especially the US and a number of European bilateral agencies. Post 9/11, new challenges have emerged. While donors have been increasingly engaged in state-building and democratisation efforts in ‘fragile states’, this report focuses on states in the developing world more generally and, hence, does not provide specific guidance on these more ‘extreme’ environments.

Chapter 2 reviews the academic literature on the Third Wave of democratisation and explores the specific democratisation trajectories found in African countries, namely democratic consolidation, democratic processes ‘stuck in transition’ and ‘political meltdown’. The chapter covers fundamental conceptual debates about democratic transitions and the challenges of democratic consolidation. It analyses the emergence of ‘hybrid regimes’ – political systems where a formal transition to democracy has taken place but where authoritarian practices and (informal) institutions continue to persist.

Chapter 3 examines why and how donors have sought to support democratisation processes. It provides an overview of some of the main approaches that donors have taken to democracy promotion, the main actors and institutions involved, and the objectives that such assistance has sought to achieve. In particular, the chapter compares US and European approaches to democracy assistance and discusses five key avenues of democratisation assistance: support to i) elections, ii) political parties, iii) judicial reform, iv) civil society, and v) the media. It also identifies the various challenges related to each area.

Key findings are summarised in Chapter 4. Over the past two decades, democratisation processes have emerged in many low-income countries – in contradiction to earlier modernisation theory which held that democratisation was only possible above a certain level of development. The consolidation of democratic regimes has proven more challenging in many of these countries, however. Democratisation assistance is still not sufficiently adapted to the challenging contexts of democratisation processes which are often either stuck, or at risk of meltdown. It is too standardised, still frequently focuses on elections rather than on wider structural and institutional changes, and seeks results too quickly. Moreover, harmonisation and alignment among a rather fragmented field of actors and more rigorous and comprehensive assessments of ‘what works’ are urgently needed to share experiences and lessons more systematically and improve current practice.

This study is part of a wider research programme which the three consortium partners – the Overseas Development Institute, the Chr. Michelsen Institute, and the Economic and Social Research Foundation – are undertaking for the Advisory Board of Irish Aid. The overall programme ‘Good Governance, New Aid Modalities and Poverty Reduction’ addresses changes in governance and how these have been supported by donors; as well as the evolving nature of the aid relationship, with a focus on low-income countries in Africa but drawing on the experience of various regions.

Lise Rakner (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Alina Rocha Menocal (ODI) and Verena Fritz (ODI)