Democracy Lab

The Prickly Politics of Aid

Development aid is inherently political - and that's not a bad thing.

In a fiery May Day speech in La Paz, Bolivian president Evo Morales announced that he was expelling the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), accusing it of conspiring against his government. He did this despite the fact that USAID shut down its democracy and governance programs in the country several years ago in response to Bolivian government objections. The Americans then pledged to work only in apparently uncontroversial areas like health and environmental conservation. 

Bolivia's decision to end U.S. assistance to the country after nearly 50 years of USAID presence reflects the ideological tensions between Bolivia's first-ever indigenous-led government and Washington. But Morales isn't the only one targeting aid providers. Last September, Russia asked USAID to leave, making similar accusations of political interference. Earlier that year, the Egyptian government charged a group of Americans, Egyptians, and other employees of five Western democracy and rights organizations with illegal activity, driving almost all of the Americans out of the country. 

These cases are only the most visible examples of growing pushback by governments around the world against foreign assistance they deem too political. Dozens of governments have proposed or enacted measures to limit or block foreign aid flows to domestic groups, vilified local non-governmental organizations for working with foreigners, and harassed or kicked out international NGOs. 

By its very nature, foreign aid is politically sensitive. Efforts by one country to change basic elements of life in another through injections of financial and technical resources are inherently intrusive. The modern aid enterprise that emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s attempted to address this sovereignty concern by limiting their efforts in two crucial ways: they would pursue only socioeconomic objectives -- economic growth and other public goods like basic infrastructure and health care -- and they would direct their aid to governments, not to competing domestic actors. 

For more than 30 years the aid community largely held to these implicit terms. But in the early 1990s aid providers moved beyond this formally apolitical framework. Frustrated with decades of poorly performing programs and unmet development objectives, donors embraced the idea that governance failures in aid-receiving countries were often at the core of disappointing socioeconomic results. Sustainable advances in education, agricultural productivity, economic growth, or other key priorities require more than technical knowledge and capital -- they need well-functioning government institutions. Focusing on governance meant focusing on politics, no matter how much aid providers initially tried to portray the concept as neutral and technical. It meant fighting corruption, confronting patronage networks, and many other politically sensitive tasks. 

In the same years, the dramatic spread of democracy in the developing and post-communist worlds prompted many Western aid groups to adopt democracy as a goal. They embraced a new orthodoxy which held that democracy and socioeconomic progress go hand in hand. Donors created a whole new range of programs to support democratic transitions, from elections assistance and political party aid to civic education programs and legislative support. Western aid programs aimed at democracy and governance now total somewhere around $10 billion annually. 

With these political goals came more political methods, including a sharp increase in foreign assistance to nongovernmental actors. This move initially reflected a desire to support an independent civil society as an essential element of democratization. Yet it spread further when development agencies -- including those, like the World Bank, that do not explicitly support democracy -- concluded that they could advance socioeconomic goals (such as improved public services) by empowering citizens to demand better governance. 

In short, aid significantly departed from a near-exclusive focus on socioeconomic objectives and governmental partners. Recipient governments were uneasy with this change, skeptical of donors' intentions and upset with external criticism of their own political practices. Yet few governments pushed back at first. This was due to the apparent triumph of the Western political model and the lack of legitimate alternatives in the early post-Cold War period, the unusually low degree of overall geostrategic tension in that era, and the simple fact that many aid-receiving governments didn't take these new aid approaches very seriously, seeing nongovernmental groups as fairly marginal actors. 

This relatively benign environment has changed. Many countries that initially appeared to be moving toward democracy have veered instead into semi-authoritarian rule and limited space for civil society organizations, such as Russia and Ethiopia, while some previously democratic countries like Venezuela have become more authoritarian. People in many countries are questioning whether Western-style democracy and governance is really the best path to rapid economic progress, looking instead to Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism or other models. Sovereignty claims are rising, not declining; the product of growing sensitivity over Western political interventionism from Iraq and Afghanistan through to Libya and beyond. And the repeated toppling of governments by citizen mobilization over the past decade -- whether the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia or the more recent Arab revolts -- have vividly highlighted to political leaders the potential power of once seemingly inconsequential civil society actors. 

The recent volley from La Paz is thus not a random skirmish but a harbinger of what will likely be more such conflicts to come. The United States and other donor governments that have adopted more political goals and methods in their aid over the past twenty years now face a fundamental choice: whether to stick to their convictions about the importance of melding the political and economic elements of development or instead retreat to more limited approaches and aspirations. 

While some may be tempted to argue that aid should pull back from politics and focus only on basics such as healthcare or primary education, such an approach is neither feasible nor wise. Almost all major aid organizations, both bilateral and multilateral, have established a range of politically-oriented aid programs and accumulated considerable knowledge about how to make a positive political difference, whether explicitly framed as democratic progress or as more accountable and participatory governance. Donors pursue these objectives not just because they believe that democratic governance is intrinsically a good thing, but also because they consider it central to sustainable socioeconomic progress. 

Building schools and providing textbooks without paying attention to a government's willingness and capacity to manage educational finances cleanly, hold teachers accountable, and ensure equal access to education is not a recipe for success. And providing support to a government without attention to its human rights record or practices of social inclusion is not likely to win durable friends, as the case of Egypt under Mubarak so vividly demonstrates. Although there are of course differences in scope and depth of the political issues that aid now addresses, the core point is that there is no clear division between "political" and "nonpolitical" aid. 

In this context, aid organizations need to confront the practical challenges of becoming politically engaged and politically smart. This does not necessarily mean being more challenging of recipient governments, although it sometimes may. At its core, being politically smart is about taking seriously how all aid programs in a country fit into and affect the broader political environment. It requires investing in political analyses of recipient countries to understand the most promising entry points for developmental change and the likely political risks. It also implies designing programs that fit into local political processes, flexibly adapt to changing political conditions, and make informed decisions about whether and how to challenge local power structures. U.S. and British aid providers have developed interesting initiatives in Nigeria, Burma, the Philippines, and elsewhere to support locally rooted public-private coalitions for change that work in a sustained way in complex political environments to help bring about lasting reforms. 

While these elements of politically smart development may seem like obvious steps, even just basic political understanding is startlingly undervalued within development agencies. Economists and other socioeconomic experts, who still dominate development agencies, tend not to be good at thinking and working politically. They fear that openly addressing politics will contaminate their efforts to present themselves as neutral technicians. And aid organizations, under intense pressure to prove their worth, are setting ever narrower targets, hurrying money out the door, and focusing on easily visible results. In this environment carrying out political analysis can seem like a luxury rather than a necessary prerequisite. 

The shift over the last two decades by the aid community to directly address recipient country politics is rooted in fundamental insights about how development occurs and how aid programs can be effective. Arguably it is the most important advance in the overall aid paradigm in decades. The increasingly prickly international context should motivate aid providers to reaffirm their political convictions and principles, not retreat into the technocratic straitjacket of the past. 

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Texas Hold 'Em in Tehran

Can the Supreme Leader bluff and bully his way to getting what he wants in Iran’s crucial upcoming presidential election?

Iran's presidential elections can sometimes feel like bad theater, a sort of lackluster process of going through the motions -- until, of course, they're not. This year's contest has already been marked by several 11th hour twists. At first, the election appearted to be an exclusive race within Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's entourage. It quickly morphed, however, into a tripartite contest between Khamenei's allies, former-two term President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has placed his hopes on his son's father-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The latter two wildcards entered the race on the last day of registration, only to be subsequently barred from the race by the omnipotent Guardian Council -- a 12-member body of clerics and jurists appointed directly and indirectly by the Supreme Leader. The electoral race has now returned full circle to a narrow contest between candidates loyal to Khamenei. But the high-stakes game of political poker is far from over.

The first presidential poll since the still-disputed 2009 election and its tumultuous aftermath, the 2013 election -- slated for June 14 -- is considered a test the Ayatollah's supremacy over the office of the presidency. If Khamenei wanted to restore his regime's domestic legitimacy amid the nuclear standoff with the West, he would have needed to countenance a free and fair -- by Iranian standards -- election with a high turnout. But at the same time, a truly open contest could bring back previously sidelined political rivals (read: reformists and pragmatists) who could push for a volte-face in foreign policy and even weaken Khamenei's grip on power.

When in his New Year's message, Ayatollah Khamenei dubbed 2013 the "Year of Political and Economic Epic," he didn't know what he was wishing for. But Iran's electoral law -- amended liberally over the years -- provides numerous options for excluding undesirable candidates. Out of the 686 registered candidates only eight were vetted byt the Guradian Council on May 21. By law, The council is not required to publicly disclose its reasons for disqualifying a candidate. So, it remains unclear on what grounds it rejected Rafsanjani -- once Khamenei's friend, now turned archrival. One step, however, remains largely unregulated: candidate registration, which began on May 7.

Yet, one day before the announcement, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, the Guardian Council's spokesman said, "If an individual who wants to take up a high post can only perform a few hours of work each day, naturally that person cannot be confirmed." It appears that the irony of disqualifying the wily politician on account of his age (he is now 78 years old) was lost on the members of the council -- whose powerful secretary, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, is eight years Rafsanjani's senior. Another potential pretext was probably to accuse the former president -- as the minister of intelligence did a few days before his registration -- of complacency in the 2009 revolt. But that would undermine the Supreme Leader's own credibility since he reappointed Rafsanjani in 2012 as the chairman of the Expediency Council, a body that advises him directly.

It was likely easier for the Supreme Leader to disqualify Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's preferred candidate, since he has already been demonized by the political establishment as a bizarre, anticlerical cult leader who managed to bewitch the lame duck president.Even the president's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, called Mashaei "the greatest threat to Islam," noting also that he had "bewitched Ahmadinejad." More importantly, Khamenei set a precedent for Mashaei's disqualification in 2009 by forcing Ahmadinejad to refrain from appointing him first vice president.

The risk is that Ahmadinejad could now go ballistic in reacting to his dauphin's disqualification -- a spectacle that would be problematic for at least two reasons. First, the president is technically in charge of conducting the election, meaning that the ruling clique's hopes of an incident-free ballot could be dashed. Second, Ahmadinejad might act on his earlier threats to expose a thick dossier of damning documents that implicate officials close to Khamenei in corruption scandals.

But the Supreme Leader might well call Ahmadinejad's bluff; experience has shown that the president typically caves when faced with Khamenei's immense institutional power. Even if he doesn't, Khamenei loyalists have laid the groundwork to soften the blow, announcing in advance that anyone who interferes with the electoral process or questions its results is doing the bidding of Iran's enemies. "Everyone, even those who make general recommendations about the election through [expressing] concerns, should take care not to serve the purpose of the enemy," Khamenei warned in January 2013. In other words, Khamenei can call for a witch-hunt if his patience wears thin.

Some observers argue that allowing Mashaei to run could be beneficial for the Supreme Leader. They note this would split the anti-establishment vote between Mashaei and Rafsanjani, leaving them both in a weaker position. That, however, would have been risky business, given that predicting voter behavior in Iran is an inexact science. In 1997, an underdog reformist candidate, Mohammad Khatami, rallied more support than expected in just a few weeks and went on to win the presidency. In 2009, an uncharismatic former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi, morphed into an Iranian Che Guevara and inspired millions of people to protest the election results.  

Allowing Rafsanjani and Mashaei to run would also have invited a serious challenge to Khamenei's conservative clique. Reformists and pragmatists would have likely united behind Rafsanjani, while Ahmadinejad's allies would have thrown their support behind Mashaei. Khamenei's camp, meanwhile, could have been the one neutralizing itself by failing -- as is so far the case -- to coalesce around one or two viable candidates. 

It appears that instead of going back to the drawing board, Khamenei has concluded that a stitch in time is better than nine. He has decided to eliminate Rafsanjani and Mashaei now, rather than deal with the unpredictable ramifications of allowing them to run. But the decision is not cost free, as he has now openly demonstrated that for the man at the helm of power in Iran, security trumps legitimacy. 

In contrast, both Rafsanjani and Mashaei have much less to lose. No other high-ranking Iranian official has put himself to the popular test more often than Rafsanjani. He has tasted both victory and defeat. While he won the 1989 and 1993 presidential elections, his bid for parliament in 2000 and the presidency in 2005 ended in humiliating defeat. He had a quasi-comeback in 2007 when he was elected chairman of the Assembly of Experts -- a body in charge of selecting the Supreme Leader. This time, his disqualification is likely to redeem him as a founding father of the Islamic Republic, who was denied a last hurrah by an increasingly authoritarian leader.  

Mashaei's candidacy, meanwhile, was also a no-lose scenario. In the unlikely event that he would have run and won, the Putin-Medvedev model would have been successfully implemented. But now that he has been barred from running, Ahmadinejad and his team could demand a price for their silence from Khamenei. If he refuses, the gloves could come off.

Reactions to disqualifications and back room negotiations during the next few weeks will determine not the fate of the barred candidates and the constituencies they represent, but in a larger sense the fate of the republican identity of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

To say that Iranian politics is the realm of contingencies is a considerable understatement. Even now that the list of the vetted and approved candidates is out, the race could still change substantially as they maneuver and drop out. There's still more than a few hands of cards to be played before election day.

Ed. —This article has been updated to take account of the Guardian Council's May 21 rejection of the candidacies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images