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For example, Terry Karl of Stanford University noted that one major conclusion of her research was that agreements, which she terms “pacts,” should be developed among elites before elections, rather than holding elections first and hoping to bring agreements among elites afterward. As an academic finding, this seems impeccable—an increasingly large body of empirical and theoretical work argues that elections can be stabilizing if they affirm agreements that bridge social cleavages and unite diverse elites in a commitment to abide by democratic rules, but tend to be destabilizing if the elections harden or polarize prior social cleavages and pit rival elites against each other in a zero-sum struggle for control of society (Berman 1997, 2001; Goldstone and Ulfelder 2004; Zakaria 2004; cf. the election in Kenya in December 2007).
However, the reality facing policymakers is that they are often called on to organize and hold elections that are demanded by the society in question, or by the international community, in which influential and critical actors are not prepared to wait until after a pact has been agreed on (Carothers 2007). Unless the weight of experience and academic research reduce the current pressures felt by policymakers to hold elections as soon as possible in emerging democracies or postconflict states, some group needs to take up the challenge of translating the findings of academic research into guidelines for actions that can be more flexible and adapted to adverse or rapidly changing conditions. Thus, one lesson to draw from Professor Karl’s research may be that when elections need to be held rapidly in the absence of prior pacts, the electoral process should be designed as much as possible to lead rival factions to seek pacts in the process of seeking electoral success. That is, rules on the composition of electoral 0 IMPROVING DEMOCRACY ASSISTANCE commissions, or restrictions on parties to require party lists to have crossgroup representation, or voting schemes that require regionally dispersed support to attain electoral success should be developed to use the election process itself to bring elites together and to “tame” factionalism.
While the specific adjustments must be tailored to each case (from using an extant body with strong legitimacy that has traditionally bridged factions, like the Afghan loya jirga, as part of the process, to the requirements in Nigeria and Kenya that candidates demonstrate cross-regional support to qualify for the ballot), the translation process needs to show how a clear but academic principle—“pacts before elections”—can be adapted to the rough-and-tumble and uncontrolled circumstances of actual transition policymaking and response.
One finding from the conference was thus that, although a large number of meetings between academics and policy professionals do occur (e.g., under the aegis of the National Endowment for Democracy), a more structured forum in which policymakers and academics can spend time focusing on discussing one particular type of policy intervention, or one group of countries, is needed if academics and policy professionals are to become able to understand each other fully and gain from each other’s knowledge and experience. It often appeared in the committee’s meeting that academics were interested in offering broad general insights or developing abstract categories to sort out developments in a large number of states, while policy professionals worried more about what would help them deal with the rapidly changing conditions and diverse pressures they face on the job.
To answer the question “How do you best assist the development of democracy under these conditions?” academic researchers and policy professionals first need to work out some agreement on what they consider to be the relevant conditions. Where academics usually will define them by abstract or historical categories, policy professionals will more often refer to the conditions under which they are expected to work. A host of such issues of varying vocabulary and references need to be worked out by direct communications before the fruits of academic research are likely to answer questions posed by USAID professionals and vice versa.
II. Democracy assistance donors and policymakers need to be aware that donors do not control the context.
In approaching the question “How much time and resources will it typically take to help secure a democratic outcome in a country like X?” it became clear that this query is not phrased correctly. This is because, as the academic scholars repeatedly noted and the practitioners readily acknowledged, democracy assistance providers do not control the context 0 LEARNING FROM THE PAST in which they work. Thus it is not always possible to form stable estimates of the likelihood or costs of attaining specific outcomes.
First, this principle means that expectations for success in democracy assistance must be tempered. A host of issues impinge on a country’s progress toward democracy—for example, standards of living, government structures, international influences, regional conditions—that are usually completely beyond the ability of democracy assistance donors to affect.3 Thus democracy assistance always needs to be opportunistic as well as strategic, identifying promising steps that can be taken in both the short term and the long term and then being ready to assist when conditions rapidly change and new openings for democracy arise.
Second, because context is more generally controlled and opportunities more readily grasped by members of the society than by outsiders, democracy assistance is only effective when supporting the activity of committed individuals and groups within the society and cannot be successfully manipulated wholly from the outside. This point is often made by those with experience in democracy assistance, such as de Zeeuw and Kumar (2006:282): “Although external actors can perhaps do more to avoid legitimating political window-dressing and thwart the incentives for corrupt activities, in the end it is up to domestic political leaders to stop these practices.”4 Third, the inability to control context means that the success of democracy assistance efforts can rarely be judged in the short term with regard to overall progress toward democracy. Rather, such success has to be judged in terms of whether any steps that may contribute to future democracy are leaving a demonstrable footprint on institutions or behavior; whether reactions to opportunities were prompt, creative, and effective in using such opportunities to assist democratic reformers and efforts to secure democracy; and whether steps that reverse democratic progress are being discouraged. Modest success in the face of the most discouraging and hostile contexts is a considerable achievement, while being able to take advantage of the most favorable contexts is probably the most cost-effective approach to improving democratic prospects.
Given that context varies greatly and that many elements important to 3Although there is much debate on the conditions that facilitate democratic transitions and consolidation, empirical work by Barro (1999), Boix and Stokes (2003), and Epstein et al (2006) all concur that economic performance is a major factor in democratic transitions, while studies by Haggard and Kauffman (1995) and Przeworski et al (2000) underline the importance of economic performance for democratic consolidation. Goldstone and Ulfelder (2004) also point to the importance of such factors as the presence of ethnic or religious discrimination and conflicts in neighboring countries as key factors that can undermine democracies.
4 This point is also emphasized by Dobbins (2003) and McFaul (2006).
0 IMPROVING DEMOCRACY ASSISTANCE democratic development in a society are beyond the control of democracy assistance donors, it is probably wrong to ask “how much” time, effort, or expense will be required to “move” a country into the democratic column.
More realistically, it could be asked under what conditions might what kind of investments pay off and in what time frame?
This also has implications for framing any case studies of democracy assistance. Given the vital importance of widely varying contexts, case studies would need to cover a substantial range of contexts that favor or disfavor democratization, not merely a diverse set of nations.
III. Democratic transitions are highly nonlinear processes.
A linear process is one that occurs in a fairly smooth and continuous fashion and in which outputs change in proportion to various inputs.
Unfortunately, democratic transitions do not have this character. Instead, such transitions are often sudden and discontinuous events, in which little or no change is observed at the national level for a long time, and then rapid shifts in power or political conditions occur. Similarly, even emerging democracies that appear to be stable can suddenly be overturned by an antidemocratic coup (e.g., Thailand) or collapse into violent conflicts (Nepal, Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire).5 This nonlinearity has major implications for planning and assessing democracy assistance policies. It means that the impact of democracy assistance in a given nation cannot simply be measured by looking for a smooth and proportional movement to democracy in response to such assistance. Instead, it may take years for the impact of democracy assistance to be revealed in the course of a sudden transition.
For example, in a recent study of the democratic transition in the Ukraine, McFaul (2006) argues that during many years of President Leonid Kuchma’s regime, democracy assistance aimed at strengthening the media, improving the autonomy of the judiciary, upgrading election commissions, and building civil society and party organizations had little or no impact on the nature of Ukraine’s regime. However, when an opening for democratic action arose during the maneuvering around elections to choose Kuchma’s successor, particularly around suspicions that the elections were fraudulent, the institutions that had been strengthened by external democracy assistance helped challenge the efforts of the Kuchma regime to control the electoral outcome. McFaul’s analysis concludes that the impact of democracy assistance was thus only “revealed” when new opportunities arose for challenging the authoritarian regime.
This nonlinearity also reinforces the point made above that democracy assistance itself must be flexible, patient, and opportunistic. Furthermore, when transitions occur, they cannot be taken for granted as having achieved a new and therefore stable equilibrium. Rather, aid may need to be sustained and retargeted to support emerging democracies for a considerable period in order to hold off sudden backsliding or collapse or to respond to new threats to democratic stability.
This nonlinearity also has major implications for the conduct of research on the impact of democracy assistance. Rather than looking for the impact of such assistance simply by focusing on the area receiving aid and searching for near-term impacts, it is necessary to place such assistance in a longer term and large-scale context. While the specific forms of assistance need to be related to changes in the character of specific institutions or behaviors, researchers must then address the full process of democratic change, sustainability, or retreat over a considerable period in the country where assistance is being studied in order to identify lagging and late-emerging effects. Without attention to the impact of contingency and changing context on a longer scale, a full and accurate assessment of democracy assistance is unlikely.
Iv. Different policy guidelines are needed for different democratization contexts.
The scholars at the Stanford conference identified at least three distinctive contexts in which donors have been active in providing democracy assistance: (1) currently authoritarian and semiauthoritarian regimes, (2) transition and posttransition regimes, and (3) postconflict regimes. Recognizing that there can be many arguments over how to categorize regimes— and even what categories to use—they suggested that these three offer particular opportunities and constraints for democracy assistance.