What future for democracy promotion in a Post-Western World?

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In a recent article entitled “Democracy Lobby Under Siege”, Nicolas Bouchet, a scholar who studies democracy promotion, describes what he calls a ‘global backlash’ against NGOs that seek to spread democracy. As examples he cites ever tougher laws across the world limiting organizations that do democracy-related work. The most prominent case that symbolizes such global discontent, according to Bouchet, is Egypt, where democracy promotion work has proliferated after Mubarak’s ouster –rather than welcoming outside help, Egypt’s generals have prosecuted NGO workers and put them on trial. In addition, governments in Venezuela, Bahrain, Russia, Cambodia, Belarus, Zimbabwe an elsewhere are increasingly targeting pro-democracy groups, often by creating bureaucratic hurdles or by simply passing laws that make such NGOs’ activities illegal.

Bouchet calls for an open debate about how local organizations with ties to Western governments are perceived domestically. And indeed it is no secret that particularly countries that have suffered from foreign meddling are often suspicious of Western attempts to promote democracy. Thomas Carother’s 1999 book (see my review of the book here), which remains until today a reference in the field, contains a series of memorable accounts of how recipients of democracy aid often doubt the West’s altruistic and sincere motives. In one instance, Carothers describes a conversation that ends abruptly after his interview parter – a local judge – succumbs to uncontrollable laughter upon learning of a US project that seeks to strengthen the country’s judicial system.

Yet at the same way, such interventions often cause angry reactions. Bouchet’s assessment that democracy promotion is ‘under siege’ from autocrats reveals a distinctly Western perspective, and many opponents of democracy aid may feel under siege themselves from Western NGOs. It is of course difficult to obtain empirical data that proves that democracy promoters are facing stiffer opposition today than, say, ten years ago. This is particularly so because democracy promoters tend to rush to countrirs where democracy seems to blossom (such as Egypt), so any case study is inherently biased and strongly affected by local conditions.

But Bouchet may be right in that autocrats across the world are increasingly discinclined to tolerate European and US-American-financed organizations openly promoting democracy abroad in the context of a global shift of power away from established powers towards emerging actors. Put differently, the West may loose – as Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubani often argues – the necessary legitimacy to get away with a kind of assertive and large-scale political regime promotion no other civilization has ever conducted.

While Europe and the United States are indeed the only actors who explicitly promote democracy (and finance organizations that have democracy promotion as their stated objetive), there other important actors who already play an important role in global efforst to promote or defend democratic regimes. Brazil and India, for example, have both sought to defend democracy in several instances – with varyig success, of course – yet these efforts are rarely considered by those who study the subject on a global scale.

This is because these emerging democratic powers engage in democracy promotion in rather subtle ways – say, by including democratic clauses in regional institutions such as Mercosur, or by pouring developing aid money into fragile democracies such as Afghanistan. In some instances, these efforts have often been quite successful. Brazil, for example, contributed to the survival of democracy in 1996 in Paraguay and 2002 in Venezuela. At this very moment, Brazil is contemplating how to preserve democracy in neighboring Paraguay after a political crisis there.

In addition to a conversation about how NGOs that received Western money are perceived locally, scholars of democracy promotion should increasingly take non-traditional actors into account and create platforms that allow established and non-established actors to engage on this important topic.

Read also:

Book review: “American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts”

Book review: “Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve” by Thomas Carothers

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