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Revitalizing U.S. Democracy Promotion

A Comprehensive Plan for Reform
April 2009 |

Over the past several years, the cause of democracy promotion has been at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. Along with heightened rhetorical attention to democratization, the Bush administration's so-called Freedom Agenda brought increased resources for democracy promotion activities and created new programs (including the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Middle East Partnership Initiative) geared toward spurring democracy and encouraging good governance.

Unfortunately, not only has the Freedom Agenda failed to fulfill its promise, it has likely set back America's overall democracy promotion efforts. The agenda was compromised by the perception that America's rhetoric was not always matched by its actions, either at home or abroad. Meanwhile, the conflation of democracy promotion with regime change in Iraq has further undermined the U.S. effort.

The inauguration of Barack Obama as president brought with it the hope that the image of the United States, particularly when it comes to democracy promotion issues, would immediately improve. But it is naive to think that such a transformation is simply a matter of changing national leaders. The challenges confronting America's ability to seed democracy are numerous, and meeting them will require far-reaching institutional changes that go to the heart of this country's approach to foreign assistance.

Indeed, although this report is primarily focused on the challenges facing America's democratization agenda, it also points to the need to create a new division of labor in the foreign assistance bureaucracy, which will require a reconsideration of the panoply of existing foreign assistance programs. This effort should begin with the creation of an autonomous, cabinet-level Department of International Development.

Beyond the pressing need for institutional reform, there is also the critical challenge of engaging with local non-state and civil society actors in fledgling democracies. These are the groups often best positioned to foster positive democratic outcomes, and many of the recommendations in this report are focused on both directly and indirectly bringing non-state actors to the forefront of U.S. democratization initiatives. This report lays out six steps for revitalizing U.S. democracy promotion efforts and reforming the U.S. foreign assistance bureaucracy:

1) The first and most crucial step is to raise the profile of international development as an objective of U.S. foreign policy. This means turning the current United States Agency for International Development (USAID) into a new cabinet-level agency, the Department of International Development, which would have primary responsibility for all U.S. development, democratization, humanitarian, and public health assistance, as well as for post-conflict reconstruction. All government-wide development and democracy assistance programs (which are now scattered among many government agencies) should either be relocated to or managed by the new agency.

2) Sharper delineations should be made between strategic assistance, development and democratization aid, and humanitarian, public health, and disaster relief assistance. Each of these categories defines different political and strategic U.S. objectives and each should be treated separately so as to avoid confusion among aid recipients and to ensure a more efficient allocation of resources. In particular, bilateral and strategic assistance should only be distributed through the State Department, and all development, democratization, and humanitarian aid should be under the guidance of the proposed Department of International Development.

3) An increasing percentage of U.S. development assistance should be conditioned on the criteria currently utilized by the Millennium Challenge Corporation. In order to reduce the fragmentation of the U.S. assistance bureaucracy, consideration should be given to incorporating the MCC into the new Department of International development. At the very least, steps should be taken to create a clear division of labor between the MCC and the new department. In addition, stakeholders, especially local NGOs, should be more directly integrated into the design and implementation of assistance programs, and, where possible, a significant portion of MCC funding should be earmarked for local, non-state actors.

4) The National Endowment for Democracy must continue to serve as a focal point for U.S. democracy assistance to non-state actors. Funding for the NED should be doubled. In addition, other avenues should be sought to increase assistance to non-state actors. This should include expanded U.S. support for multilateral and regional organizations, including the United Nations Democracy Fund. To improve the allocation of resources to non-state actors, a $50 million fund for U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with proven track records in democracy promotion should be established and administered by the new Department of International Development.

5) A position of foreign assistance coordinator should be created in each U.S. embassy. The primary responsibility of the individuals holding this post would be to coordinate all U.S. assistance to the recipient country in order to streamline the aid process and to ensure that the work of local non-state actors and other private and nongovernmental organizations was incorporated into decision making regarding U.S. assistance.

6) U.S. diplomatic efforts should be more clearly geared toward protecting non-state actors and ensuring that foreign countries uphold, support, and do not interfere with the work of civil society organizations.

For the full report, see the PDF below.

The challenges confronting America’s ability to seed democracy are numerous, and meeting them will require far-reaching institutional changes that go to the heart of this country’s approach to foreign assistance.

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