Advancing Democracy

Advancing Democracy

Mini Teaser: Despots have long formed coalitions on the international stage. Democracies are finally responding.

by Author(s): Paula J. Dobriansky

The recent establishment of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) is another creative American policy that will contribute to the expansion of democracy. Announced two years ago by President Bush, this innovative initiative rewards developing nations that "make the right [governance] choices"--measured by their performance on 16 indicators--by offering the opportunity for additional U.S. assistance. Congress authorized $1 billion for this purpose in 2004; the president has requested $2.5 billion for 2005 and is committed to seeking $5 billion for 2006. Full funding for the MCA would mean adding 50 percent to the $10 billion that America provided through core development programs when the program was announced in 2002. In May 2004 the Board of Directors of the Millennium Challenge Corporation--the implementing organization, chaired by Secretary of State Colin Powell--announced a list of the first 16 countries eligible to apply for these funds.

The core logic of our approach is that, in the absence of political will to advance proven political and economic approaches, traditional development assistance cannot produce sustained progress on its own. Providing assistance without a strong commitment by the receiving government to improve citizen's lives is often unproductive, if not counterproductive, by helping leaders to continue business as usual. This situation has led some critics to question the value of foreign aid. However, from the very beginning, the Bush Administration has maintained that we need to reform the way development assistance is provided, focusing new attention on lasting development progress through partnership and mutual effort. The MCA builds on fifty years of experience by supporting those governments that have already demonstrated a commitment in three crucial areas: governing justly, investing in their people and encouraging economic freedom. Helping countries that have good laws and effective and transparent policies makes sense; they are best able to take advantage of U.S. assistance and, eventually, should no longer need it.

Compacts negotiated in partnership with participating governments are a cornerstone of this program. In addition to specifying objectives and priorities, evaluation criteria, and financial and accounting plans, recipients of MCA funds will identify the top challenges to their growth and development goals and are required to engage civil society groups and the private sector in their overall program. This not only promotes national ownership of the program, but further strengthens civil society and enhances democratic governance.

More fundamentally, the MCA promotes democracy in three essential ways. First, it helps to consolidate democracy in the countries selected to receive assistance by rewarding good policies and supporting partnership between government and civil society to accelerate growth. Governments that sign compacts make a public commitment to sustaining and improving their performance in the three critical areas covered by the selection indicators. Second, governments that do not live up to those commitments will lose MCA assistance, providing a strong incentive for continued improvement and avoidance of backsliding. Finally, the assistance they receive--and the success we ultimately expect--will serve as a powerful example to countries that do not yet meet the eligibility criteria. A similar approach by other key international donors, something we strongly encourage, would substantially magnify the impact of this initiative.

Needless to say, the United States also provides financial support to projects around the world that advance the development of civil society, free media and political parties and that promote human rights. The Department of State provides assistance directly through grants from programs like its Human Rights and Democracy Fund, which has more than tripled in size between 2001 and 2004, rising to $43 million. These funds go to important grassroots projects, such as legal assistance and human rights education in Uzbekistan, NGO development in China and the only independent radio station in Angola.

The Agency for International Development works to advance democracy as well through its Democracy and Governance programs, which focus on the four key areas of the rule of law, elections and political processes, civil society and governance.

Finally, the U.S. government works closely with a variety of domestic and international non-governmental organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the Council for a Community of Democracies, among others. These groups are vital partners, contributing enormously to worldwide efforts to promote democracy and human rights.

During this administration, the United States has given special attention to promoting democracy in the broader Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, this effort is a key component of our broad strategy toward the region. We believe that strengthening democracy plays a valuable role in winning the war against terrorist groups and the regimes that support, harbor or generate them, wherever they are located. We are also motivated by the increasingly evident and deplorable gap in democracy and development between the Middle East and North Africa and much of the rest of the world. The respected NGO Freedom House identified this "democracy gap" in its 2002 Freedom in the World annual survey. Likewise, the Arab scholars who wrote the United Nations Development Program's Arab Human Development Report in the same year argued that "there is a substantial lag between Arab countries and other regions in terms of participatory governance" and explicitly linked this lag to lower income, slower growth, weaker education and healthcare, and many other problems plaguing the region. When not channeled into democratic processes, the grievances fuelled by these problems can also contribute to radicalism and violence.

Some have argued that attempting to introduce greater democracy to the Middle East is futile and that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. This is demonstrably false. On the contrary, as Freedom House has pointed out, the majority of the world's Muslims live under democratic governments in countries like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey and in western Europe and North America. One should not make the mistake of believing that there is anything inherent in Islam, or any other faith or culture, that will prevent the emergence of democracy. Similar assumptions, held widely decades ago, have already collapsed in Latin America and Asia, where democracies are flourishing. Iraq's fledging democracy could begin the same process in the Middle East and North Africa.

And in fact, there have been a variety of encouraging developments in the region. The emir of Bahrain has announced that his nation will conduct parliamentary as well as municipal elections that will permit women candidates to run for office. This is a significant step forward for women's rights, political and economic reform, and broader political participation in Bahrain.

Notwithstanding Iran's disappointing recent Majlis elections, which regime stalwarts manipulated to ensure their victory, the country's people are pressing for change. The Islamic Republic's young population increasingly seeks freedom from its repressive government and has grown disillusioned with the role of the conservative clerics, who control the police and security forces. Despite setbacks, this movement continues to advance and demonstrates that Iranians will not tolerate the status quo indefinitely.

Algeria's first contested multiparty presidential election this year suggests that the country is successfully emerging from a decade of terrorism and violence. These generally peaceful and transparent elections were an important step toward democracy.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI has taken an unprecedented move in the field of human rights in the Arab Middle East by establishing the region's first Justice and Reconciliation Commission to examine past human rights abuses by the state and compensate victims. The commission is led by a former political prisoner who suffered 17 years' imprisonment in the country. Morocco's king has also recently articulated a "vision for the future" that embraces numerous internal reforms to be implemented during the next five years.

More broadly, democracy has become a more frequent topic of discussion in the region. Yemen recently hosted a major international conference on democracy in the Middle East that brought together delegates from more than 50 countries as well as international and regional organizations. The final declaration stressed that "human rights [and] application of the rule of law" are "compatible with all faiths and cultures" and essential to "any meaningful conception of democracy."

One of the newer U.S. responses to the challenge of developing democracy in the Middle East is the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), announced by Secretary Powell in December 2002. The aim of the initiative is to build ties among NGOs, private businesses and governments in the Middle East and America and the rest of the world with a view to advancing reform in four specific areas: MEPI's economic, political, education and women's "pillars." The United States has committed more than $200 million to support projects between 2002 and 2004.

Goals in the political pillar include strengthening democratic practices and civil society, promoting the rule of law and government accountability, and enhancing the role of free and independent media. One of the projects announced most recently is a training program for parliamentary staff from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Lebanon conducted by the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), which will also link participants to the African Network of Parliamentary Personnel established last year with assistance from the NCSL. In 2003, Bahrain hosted the Arab Judicial Forum to stimulate discussion of sound judicial systems and develop plans to address common issues. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor addressed delegates from over a dozen Middle Eastern countries.

Essay Types: Essay