U.S. democracy assistance is in desperate need of reform. From its modest beginnings in the Reagan administration, the idea that outsiders can encourage democratic change overseas has grown into a $3 billion industry encompassing a vast array of programs. But the endeavor has evolved into a giant mess. Scholars and practitioners have argued convincingly that the "democracy bureaucracy" remains uncoordinated, is often counterproductive, contains redundancies, and is "characterized by scant strategic thinking and a cumbersome management system."
Just take Azerbaijan. Since the country achieved independence in 1991, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has dumped more than $55 million into programs to make the country more democratic. Meanwhile, the Aliyev family -- first father Heydar, then son Ilham -- has stayed in power since 1993. The regime has jailed young people for making satirical videos, tightened the rules governing civic organizations, imprisoned hundreds of religious believers branded as "extremists," and failed to hold a single election that met international standards.
But that hasn't kept USAID -- the development organization that distributes more than 80 percent of U.S. democracy dollars -- from trying. From 2007 to 2011, USAID spent $5.6 million attempting to "enhance the overall effectiveness" of the parliament of Azerbaijan. The trouble is that parliament has never been freely elected. Every single member of the legislature is a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party. U.S. taxpayers paid for an orientation program to "solidify [the parliament's] own sense of identity" for new members of the Azerbaijani parliament, all of whom were elected in 2010 parliamentary elections that the U.S. Embassy in Baku generously described as "not meet[ing] international standards." The U.S. Embassy also cited an unfair candidate registration process, continued restrictions on freedoms of assembly and expression, and a lack of balanced media coverage during the run-up to the election. During the election itself, U.S. diplomats also spotted ballot box stuffing and other serious violations.
In other words, the U.S. government found fault with the 2010 parliamentary elections -- and then trained the winners. USAID even paid for a new website to make the fake parliament more efficient. A final assessment carried out by two outside experts found that the parliamentary program "did not change how the [parliament of Azerbaijan] functions or how ordinary people in Azerbaijan relate to and understand the parliament." After the orientation for members of parliament, they "may be better prepared to do their jobs, [but] there is little debate in the [parliament of Azerbaijan], indicating that the [Parliamentary Program of Azerbaijan] has not changed the core characteristics of the parliament."
Fifty-five million dollars later, the U.S. remains committed to a failing strategy. In August 2012, USAID issued a $1.5 million call for the Azerbaijan Rights Consortium Project that would "enable key civil society organizations to better respond to President Aliyev's vision" for the country. The idea of U.S. taxpayer dollars going to implement the supposedly democratic "vision" of Azerbaijan's authoritarian president is deeply troubling.
Why, then, does the U.S. government continue to fund misguided programs in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries that display no interest in reform? Why does USAID write seriously of President Aliyev's benign intentions when he has shown minimal respect for the rights of his own citizens? The reason is as banal as it is galling: bureaucratic self-interest, inertia, and the assumption that more is always better. We can end the waste with a strategic approach to programs and an emphasis on triage, allocating more money where there is a greater chance of real change, not just spending wherever there is a mandate and a mechanism to do so.
The current system may be flawed, but there are some remedies in sight. Supporting democrats is an important plank of U.S. influence and national security that can be improved with three reforms.