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Does Democracy Still Matter?

Posted on the 22 October 2014 by Center For International Private Enterprise @CIPEglobal
Once among the poorest countries in the world, South Korea has grown into one of the richest since transitioning to democracy in the late 1980s.

Once among the poorest countries in the world, South Korea has grown into one of the richest since transitioning to democracy in the late 1980s after a series of popular uprisings.

In his June 1982 Westminster Address , which laid the groundwork for the creation of CIPE and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), President Ronald Reagan established an emerging role for the U.S. emerging as a leader in supporting democracy around the world:

 “It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation- in both the public and private sectors- to assisting democratic development…The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy-the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities- which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”

Today that role is being questioned. At an October 20, 2014 conference hosted by the Kennan and Foreign Policy Research Institutes, academics and policymakers from around the world convened to dissect the question “Does Democracy Matter?”

Panelists and participants acknowledged a notable – and unprecedented – cynicism about democracy support: its track record, current viability, and future prospects. Worse yet, this cynicism among scholars, politicians, and practitioners in the U.S. and Europe is coupled with disillusion in nascent or would-be democracies from Central Europe to the Middle East to Latin America. Keynote speaker Larry Diamond reminded the audience that, in direct contrast to the 1990s, the last ten years have seen more countries increasing in authoritarianism than countries making democratic gains.

Three panels, populated with World Bank, State Department, and NED representatives, as well as researchers and academics, tackled whether or not promoting democracy should still be an American foreign policy objective, how to balance security priorities with support for democratic actors, and best practices for large-scale aid programs like those administered by USAID, the U.S. Department of State, and the NED.

In addition to the pessimism and causes for concern identified by the panelists, several other themes emerged during the conference: tension between U.S. security interests and its democracy initiatives, a rejection of the idea of “imposing” democracy versus supporting local initiatives, and the notion that the United States itself cannot successfully promote democracy around the world without reforming its own institutions and reasserting itself as a strong model for good governance, accountability, and transparency. This sentiment was echoed by Barak Hoffman of the World Bank, Professor Michal Koran of Romania, and keynote speaker Dr. Larry Diamond.

Is the spirit of President Reagan’s speech indeed slipping? Is there a crises of confidence in the objective value of supporting democracy, and is America no longer a democratic role model worth emulating? What are best practices and how can democratic political development be furthered around the world in a moment of extreme disenchantment?

While there are legitimate questions – about the role of external actors in democracy promotion or among democrats themselves about how to enact sustainable reform – democracy remains the ultimate goal for reformers the world over. Not only have authoritarians failed to produce any credible alternative to democracy, but – as Dr. Diamond concluded in his formal comments – the community of democracy practitioners remain “on the side of history.”

With or without the help of outside support, populations from every corner of the globe have turned towards democracy. Since WWII authoritarian leaders of every ideological stripe have promised that a “strong man” in power will deliver better economic growth and governance and time and again those promises have failed to deliver or have imposed a false tradeoff between freedom and prosperity. From South Korea and Taiwan to more recent movements in Hong Kong and the Middle East, populations have realized that both civil liberties and economic prosperity can only be achieved under democratic systems.

Panelists discussing best practices for U.S. democracy programs expressed varying degrees of optimism for current and future efforts, but they all agreed that the basic building blocks remain the rule of law, robust institutions, and a strong middle class. Indeed it was clear from this discussion that not only does democracy still matter, but that the key to sustainable democratic transformation lies largely in economic development.

Operating in the unique space between economic development aid and political or civil-society oriented democracy building, CIPE supports democracy through its work in small business advocacy training, anti-corruption best practices, entrepreneurship ecosystems, and access to information. Following the partner-based model advocated at the conference by scholar and aid practitioner Melinda Haring, CIPE continues to focus on these core areas while remaining committed to inclusive growth that fosters the democratic initiatives of local actors before, during, and after periods of transition.

From anti-corruption efforts in Thailand to business advocacy training in Iraq to teaching young entrepreneurs in Nepal, Afghanistan, and Peru, CIPE helps to build the “infrastructure of democracy” that President Reagan talked about in 1982. Even as scholars and international development specialists worry about “democracy fatigue,” demand for these programs – and their importance to the development of robust democracies – remains as strong as ever.

Sarah Ali is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.


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