New forms of aid are needed to strengthen democracy

Despite the rhetorical support of donor countries for democratic development, direct democracy support accounts for only 2% of the world's total aid. At the same time, the recipient countries 'democratic processes are hindered by the donor countries' optimistic analyzes and detailed demands in other areas. Aid can be better at including citizens and other democratic actors to contribute to change from below. That is the opinion of Anna Lekvall, current with the new book "Development first, democracy later?"

To a straight question, almost the entire population of the world answers that they want democracy.

This applies regardless of whether the person surveyed is Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, comes from Africa or Asia, is male or female, young or old. Support for democracy is global. There are opinion polls that show.

Even the UN Charter clearly expresses the importance of democracy. The same applies to the UN Millennium Declaration, which states that no effort should be spared to promote democracy. Likewise, many donor countries and international organizations aim to support democracy with their aid and development policies.

In other words - there is no lack of promises of support for democracy. This applies not least in international development cooperation, where democracy is often emphasized as an important goal. But when it comes to practice, it turns out to be a difficult goal to fulfill. In the actual implementation of development assistance, democracy issues often come last in the queue.

In the newly published book Development First, Democracy Later? a critical analysis is made of traditional aid from a democracy perspective. The result is not encouraging. Despite the clear ambitions of donor countries and attempts to contribute to democratic development, it is in many ways a disappointing picture that emerges.

Democracy is in practice a low priority in development cooperation. Today, a very small part of global aid goes to purely so-called democracy aid. Only about 2% of the total support goes to directly strengthen democracy actors and processes. In the important discussion about what goals the world should gather around when the UN's Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015, it does not even look as if the issues of democracy will be included. This is despite the fact that the UN's own survey shows that “honest and responsive government” ends up in the top five of priorities when people in 194 countries are consulted.

But an even bigger problem is perhaps how the large development aid resources affect democracy. It is about the broad, classic cooperation that will promote development, ie assistance to areas such as health, roads and agricultural development. Areas that actually have little direct connection to democracy, but which greatly influence the political development within countries.

The channels and methods for how resources are supplied to a poor country affect power relations - some are strengthened and others are weakened. The actors with whom the donors cooperate receive benefits and those who do not receive support are weakened. Without a careful calibration of the forms of development cooperation and how it is implemented, development aid risks weakening democratic actors and processes, instead of supporting them.

Aid strengthens the incumbent and weakens the opposition

Traditional development cooperation channels extensive resources through governments. This is how the principle of "ownership" of development assistance has been interpreted. But ownership should, of course, be popular ownership, not an undemocratic regime whose position of power risks being strengthened by development aid. Steps towards a broader, more inclusive concept have been taken at the policy level - but in practice ownership still proves to be too limited, usually to a small political elite closely linked to economic power.

The analysis also shows that large aid flows through the state tend to strengthen the political force in power. Authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes use state funds, including aid, to strengthen and retain power. Over the past ten years, 93% of incumbent governments in hybrid regimes have regained power in elections.

In addition, it turns out that many forms of aid avoid and marginalize political actors. Aid and loans that extend generations, as much as 40 years, are aid that is rarely discussed in the country's parliament or among the country's political parties.

The analysis shows that donors largely control the direction of politics instead of politics being developed by domestic political actors - not least opposition parties, and democratically important interest groups such as trade unions, teachers' unions, agricultural movements and others. Development aid has come with increasingly specific requirements for the formulation of policy, such as trade policy, labor law, environmental issues, land rights, which means that political parties and interest groups lose their function. That donors should be even close to this level of political interference is highly questionable. A far more neutral approach would be to support policy-making based on a democratic process.

Donors make over-optimistic analyzes of democracy

Aid is rarely provided in well-functioning, democratic states. On the contrary, aid must work in the most difficult political environments, which are often the poorest. Of the 50 countries that receive the most aid globally, 36 have authoritarian or hybrid regimes (also called semi-authoritarian). It is this reality that must govern when the forms of aid are decided. But this is often not the case.

The analysis shows that donors often overestimated the degree of democracy in recipient countries. Over-optimistic analyzes have formed the basis for development assistance strategies and forms have been chosen based on the recipient country being in a positive democratic development. This has been reflected in generally formulated democracy criteria in many development aid agreements. When democratic setbacks have arisen, donors have not really known how to act. Sometimes aid has been shut down for a while, and then on again, sometimes no response has taken place. The action has been inconsistent, superficial and has hardly contributed to strengthening democracy. Democratic shortcomings are not surprises, but basic problems that should be taken into account from the beginning.

A positive step is that donors have begun to make more in-depth analyzes of the political environment in which development cooperation operates. Unfortunately, this is seldom due to a stated ambition to strengthen democracy, but to donors beginning to realize that the political environment has a negative impact on development cooperation results. These analyzes have pointed to a number of problems with the political dynamics and their impact on the results of development assistance, but studies show that this insight has not yet led to radical changes in development cooperation.

The forms of aid of the future should strengthen democracy

It may sound like almost hopeless problems and of course there are difficult dilemmas. But it is clear that there are a number of fundamental issues about the impact of development aid on democracy - as well as the impact of the political environment on development - that should be discussed and clarified. And there are possible solutions and new approaches that can be ways forward.

Donors can to a greater extent have an open dialogue with the citizens of the recipient country and assistance that engages all democratic actors and systems in a country. An assistance designed by domestic actors with a higher degree of transparency. It is also possible to design aid that builds more from below, works with the grassroots, helps to spread information and discussion, and increases the cost of abuse of power.

But it's not easy. Political issues are sensitive in cooperation between countries. Perhaps the most important question is - can the broad development cooperation manage to become more political? If not, what are the options?

Donors have become increasingly aware of the political environment in which development aid operates and that democracy has stalled in many countries. Now that the forms of development assistance of the future are being shaped, it is high time that there is development assistance that takes democracy seriously, and that goes hand in hand with economic and social development.


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