Democracy Lab

Reforming the Democracy Bureaucracy

Washington's democracy promotion community is a mess. Here's how to fix it.

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.

First, we ought to recognize that models matter. Two main institutional models exist for promoting democracy: field-based and grant-making organizations. Field-based organizations implement programs through field offices staffed by expatriates and locals, while grant-making organizations maintain a headquarters office, but do not support field offices. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is the best-known independent grant-making organization, while most partners of USAID like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) are field-based organizations.

In closed societies, the NED's grant-making approach is superior because it does not require field offices that depend on the ongoing permission of an authoritarian government. An organization with a field office in an authoritarian state like Russia, for example, is more vulnerable to strong-arm tactics than a foreign organization that does not seek to maintain a foreign presence. We saw this first-hand in September 2012, when the Russian government ordered USAID to close all of its programs in the Russian Federation. Consequently, all USAID-funded partners with offices in Russia are closing or are scrambling to shift their Russian operations to neighboring countries.

The NED model also acknowledges that outsiders have a limited role to play in democratic transitions. In marked contrast to the field-based model, the NED's grants are conceptualized, overseen, and implemented by locals; they are driven by the needs and interests of local activists, who know their societies better than any Western development expert. NED program staff who speak relevant local languages frequently visit to monitor the projects. Furthermore, NED's grants tend to be very small (less than $100,000) and are distributed among a wide range of grantees, thereby reducing the risk that funds might be misused.

The independent grant-making approach offers a much smaller financial pipeline than the field-office alternative, but this is a virtue. A small country awash in donor dollars is an invitation to the unscrupulous, as myriad accounts from Afghanistan attest. Societies produce only so many democratic activists, and too many assistance dollars can create an artificial cottage industry. The NED cannot pump as much money into a country as USAID, but that's hardly a bad thing.

The grant-making model of the NED is unique, and it should be bolstered. Congress should increase the National Endowment for Democracy's current annual budget of $104 million by 20 percent over the next 10 years. At the same time, the U.S. government should leave democracy assistance in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan to the NED.

As a second reform, USAID and its field-based partners should only work in countries where a democratic outcome is likely, or in countries clearly undergoing political transition. Practically speaking, USAID should fund democracy programs only in countries that Freedom House ranks as "partly free" according to its annual Freedom in the World index. Thus, the U.S. should curtail current USAID programs in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. None of these countries have real politics, a viable opposition, a vibrant civil society, an independent press, elite interest in reform, or free and fair elections, nor are they likely to in the foreseeable future. These countries make poor investments for scarce democracy dollars.

It's worth noting that other international donors direct their resources more strategically. Even the 10 Eastern European members of the European Union -- once recipients of U.S. assistance and now new donors in their own right -- do not spread their limited democracy dollars thin: they put most of their money into Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine, all countries where change is either underway or feasible. We should follow their example.

Third, democracy is an inherently competitive system, and the democracy bureaucracy identifies competition as central to good governance. Unfortunately, that same value often does not apply in the scramble for allocating democracy dollars. USAID issues multi-million dollar awards without a competitive bidding process for every award, and this has led to stale, cookie-cutter programs that simply keep large democracy organizations afloat. For instance, USAID's Consortium for Elections and Political Processes Strengthening (CEPPS) process circumvents what is normally a competitive application process for program funds. The CEPPS mechanism guarantees NDI, IRI and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems million-dollar awards without real competition.

The fix is simple: All awards should be competitively bid, and non-competitive mechanisms for awarding program funds -- mechanisms that have become all too prevalent in the world of democracy assistance -- should be phased out.

Transparency is a vital aspect of competition. Congress can encourage the democracy bureaucracy to become more transparent. Unlike many USAID implementers, the NED discloses the recipients of its funding, the amount of the grant, and a description of the program. All information -- including detailed budgets, quarterly reports, final reports and evaluations for USAID-funded programs in countries ranked "partly free" or better -- should be publicly available on a single website that Congress, scholars, and citizens can monitor.

Evaluating traditional development programs (such as health assistance or education) is relatively straightforward: You can count the numbers of people who have received immunizations or attended literacy classes. Analyzing the efficacy of democracy promotion efforts is more complicated. Still, it's important to realize that there are a number of tools today for tracking a given society's progress toward democracy, and we should make full use of them in monitoring the effects of programs. The U.S. should not continue to spend $3 billion annually if it cannot demonstrate that its democracy programs are having an impact. In the end, the only real measure of democracy promotion is actual progress toward democracy.

Democracy promotion is a noble endeavor, but it requires more than simply injecting funds into closed societies in the hope that assistance will eventually transform them into robust democracies. Hope and change are fine political catchwords, but they won't suffice if we really aim, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, to "stand...with all those who love freedom and yearn for democracy, wherever they might be."



How Democratic Is Turkey?

Not as democratic as Washington thinks it is.

It seems strange that the biggest challenge to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authority during more than a decade in power would begin as a small environmental rally, but as thousands of Turks pour into the streets in cities across Turkey, it is clear that something much larger than the destruction of trees in Istanbul's Gezi Park -- an underwhelming patch of green space close to Taksim Square -- is driving the unrest.

The Gezi protests, which have been marked by incredible scenes of demonstrators shouting for Erdogan and the government to resign as Turkish police respond with tear gas and truncheons, are the culmination of growing popular discontent over the recent direction of Turkish politics. The actual issue at hand is the tearing down of a park that is not more than six square blocks so that the government can replace it with a shopping mall but the whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Turkey under the AKP has become the textbook case of a hollow democracy.

The ferocity of the protests and police response in Istanbul's Gezi Park is no doubt a surprise to many in Washington. Turkey, that "excellent model" or "model partner," is also, as many put it, "more democratic than it was a decade ago." There is a certain amount of truth to these assertions, though the latter, which is repeated ad nauseum, misrepresents the complex and often contradictory political processes underway in Turkey. Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous -- the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power. Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. In fact, the opposite is the case, paving the way for the AKP to cement its hold on power and turn Turkey into a single-party state. The irony is that the AKP was building an illiberal system just as Washington was holding up Turkey as a model for the post-uprising states of the Arab world.

Shortly after the AKP came to power in 2002, a debate got under way in the United States and Europe about whether Turkey was "leaving the West." Much of this was the result of the polite Islamophobia prevalent in the immediate post-9/11 era. It was also not true. From the start, Turkey's new reformist-minded Islamists did everything they could to dispel the notion that by dint of their election, Turkey was turning its back on its decade of cooperation and integration with the West. Ankara re-affirmed Turkey's commitment to NATO and crucially undertook wide-ranging political reforms that did away with many of the authoritarian legacies of the past, such as placing the military under civilian control and reforming the judicial system.

The new political, cultural, and economic openness helped Erdogan ride a coalition of pious Muslims, Kurds, cosmopolitan elites, big business, and average Turks to re-election with 47 percent of the popular vote in the summer of 2007, the first time any party had gotten more than 45 percent of the vote since 1983. This was unprecedented in Turkish politics. Yet Erdogan was not done. In 2011, the prime minister reinforced his political mystique with 49.95 percent of the popular vote.

Turkey, it seemed, had arrived. By 2012, Erdogan presided over the 17th-largest economy in the world, had become an influential actor in the Middle East, and the Turkish prime minister was a trusted interlocutor with none other than the president of the United States.  Yet even as the AKP was winning elections at home and plaudits from abroad, an authoritarian turn was underway. In 2007, the party seized upon a plot in which elements of Turkey's so-called deep state -- military officers, intelligence operatives, and criminal underworld -- sought to overthrow the government and used it to silence its critics. Since then, Turkey has become a country where journalists are routinely jailed on questionable grounds, the machinery of the state has been used against private business concerns because their owners disagree with the government, and freedom of expression in all its forms is under pressure.

Spokesmen and apologists for the AKP offer a variety of explanations for these deficiencies, from "it's the law" and the "context is missing," to "it's purely fabricated." These excuses falter under scrutiny and reveal the AKP's simplistic view of democracy.  They also look and sound much like the self-serving justifications that deposed Arab potentates once used to narrow the political field and institutionalize the power of their parties and families. Yet somehow, Washington's foreign-policy elite saw Turkey as a "model" or the appropriate partner to forge a soft-landing in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere.

In the midst of the endless volley of teargas against protesters in Taksim, one of the prime ministers advisors plaintively asked, "How can a government that received almost 50 percent of the vote be authoritarian?" This perfectly captures the more recent dynamic of Erdogan's Turkey, where the government uses its growing margins of victory in elections to justify all sorts of actions that run up against large reservoirs of opposition.

The most obvious way this pattern has manifested itself is in the debate over the new Turkish constitution, which Erdogan had been determined to use as a vehicle to institute a presidential system in which he would serve as Turkey's first newly empowered president. When the opposition parties voiced their fervent opposition to such a plan and the constitutional commission deadlocked in late 2012 -- missing its deadline of the end of the year to submit its recommendations -- Erdogan threatened to disregard the commission entirely and ram through his own constitutional plan. He floated the idea again in early April 2013, but softened his position as it became clear that there is significant opposition to his presidential vision even within the AKP.

Turkey's new alcohol law, which among other things sets restrictions on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., curtails advertising, and bans new liquor licenses from establishments near mosques and schools, is another example of the AKP's majoritarian turn. Despite vociferous opposition, the law was written, debated, and passed in just two weeks, and Erdogan's response to the law's critics has been to assert that they should just drink at home.

Similarly, the AKP is undertaking massive construction projects in Istanbul, including the renovation of Taksim Square, the building of a new airport, and the construction of a third bridge over the Bosphorus, all of which are controversial and opposed by widespread coalitions of diverse interests. Yet in every case, the government has run roughshod over the projects' opponents in a dismissive manner, asserting that anyone who does not like what is taking place should remember how popular the AKP has been when elections roll around. In a typical attempt to use the AKP's vote margins as a cudgel, Erdogan on Saturday warned the CHP -- Turkey's main opposition party -- "if you gather 100,000 people, I can gather a million."

Turkey's anti-democratic turn has all taken place without much notice from the outside world. It was not just coercive measures -- arrests, investigations, tax fines, and imprisonments -- that Washington willfully overlooked in favor of a sunnier narrative about the "Turkish miracle." Perhaps it is not as clear, but over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk.

All this is why the current tumult over the "redevelopment" of Gezi Park runs deeper than merely the bulldozing of green space. It represents outrage over crony capitalism, arrogance of power, and the opacity of the AKP machine. In the media, Erdogan has encouraged changes in ownership or intimidated others to ensure positive coverage -- or, in the case of the Gezi Park protests, no coverage. In what was a surreal scene - but sadly one that was altogether unsurprising to close observers of Turkey -- CNN International on Friday was covering the protests live in Taksim while at the very same time CNN Turk, the network's Turkish-language affiliate, was running a cooking show as the historic heart of Turkey's largest city was in enormous upheaval. This dynamic of Turkish press censorship and intimidation, in which media outlets critical of the government are targeted for reprisal, has resulted in the dismissal of talented journalists like Amberin Zaman, Hasan Cemal, and Ahmet Altan for criticizing the government or defying its dictates. This type of implicit government intimidation is unreasonable in an allegedly democratic or democratizing society.

Under these circumstances, Turkish politics is not necessarily more open than it was a decade ago, when the AKP was pursuing democratic reforms in order to meet the European Union's requirements for membership negotiations. It is just closed in an entirely different way. Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey's insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey's lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Successful democracies provide their citizens with ways in which to express their desires and frustrations beyond periodic elections, and Turkey has failed spectacularly in this regard.

The combination of a feckless opposition and the AKP's heavyhanded tactics have finally come to a head. This episode will not bring down the government, but it will reset Turkish politics in a new direction; the question is whether the AKP will learn some important lessons from the people amassing in the streets or continue to double down on the theory that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases.

It is not just the AKP that needs to reassess its policies, but Washington as well. Perhaps the Obama administration does not care about Turkey's reversion or has  deemed it better to counsel, cajole, and encourage Erdogan privately and through quiet acts of defiance like extending the term of Amb. Francis Ricciardone, who has gotten under the government's skin over press freedom, for another year.

This long game has not worked. It is time the White House realized that Erdogan's rhetoric on democracy has far outstripped reality. Turkey has less to offer the Arab world than the Obama administration appears to think, and rather than just urging Arab governments to pay attention to the demands of their citizens, Washington might want to urge its friends in Ankara to do the same as well. The AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan might have been elected with an increasing share of the popular vote over the last decade, but the government's actions increasingly make it seem as if Turkish democracy does not extend farther than the voting booth.

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