NGOs have played an active role in the democratic transformation of Tajikistan, Argentina and South Africa. So why then is it so hard to import democracy elsewhere?

Can NGOs be active participants in promoting democracy throughout the developing world? Photo: Corbis

Julie Fisher’s book “Importing Democracy” is devoted to a very pressing topic that provokes heated debate: the opportunities and problems that arise from importing Western democratic values and models to developing countries.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the military operation in Afghanistan have both shown that democracy cannot be installed by force. But can it be imported “by peace”? And if so, who should be part of the process? Julie Fisher cites non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as the prominent players.

Fisher has written two other books about civil society: The first examines the impact of NGO activity on the processes of sustainable development, while the second looks at the effect of the public sector on policy making. The author’s latest work is intended to form a logical addition to her previous books and to answer the question of whether NGOs can be active participants in the advancement of democracy throughout the developing world.

A global revolution of public organizations

The author’s attention is not focused on all existing NGOs. Covering a broad sweep of organizations in various fields, Fisher highlights those that are “directly, intentionally, and knowingly engaged in the promotion of democracy.” These include human rights and women’s NGOs, and groups involved in penal reform, election monitoring, organizing public debates, and shaping civil consciousness. Noting the growing role of NGOs in contemporary political life, Fischer describes the present stage of world development as a “global revolution of public organizations.”

And that is a just remark: To solve the problems caused by globalization (the fight against terrorism, prevention of environmental and humanitarian disasters, HIV-AIDS, etc.) demands that all key players join forces, including governments, the private sector, and the public.

It is worth mentioning that NGOs often make a significant contribution in various areas of international relations — be it the settlement of disputes and conflicts, or the framing and implementation of a sustainable development concept — by offering the global community a set of tried-and-tested approaches and methodologies. Another result of globalization is the erasing of national borders, and the development and consolidation of civil networks and coalitions.

The increasing role of NGOs is also being observed in the internal politics of many countries. The state is gradually withdrawing from various spheres of traditional activity, delegating its duties to the non-commercial sector. As a result, public organizations are becoming ever more important providers of social, expert, advisory, and educational services, as well as human rights advocates and lobbyists. Overall, NGOs have become an influential force that governments acknowledge and with which they cooperate.

The NGO experience in South Africa, Argentina and Tajikistan

At first glance, the selection of these three countries for a comparative analysis seems illogical: they differ greatly in their political and economic contexts, cultural traditions, and historical experience. However, Fisher convinces us of the soundness of her choice. There are several factors at play.

First is the presence in each country of a multitude of active NGOs all promoting democracy. Second, their geographical locations (in three different continents) allow an investigation of the geopolitical aspect of the problem. Third, there are stable and long-term ties between organizations in these countries and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, of which Fisher is a former employee (the foundation supports research into various aspects of democracy). Finally, all three countries have experienced major political upheavals (South Africa under apartheid, 1948-1994; Argentina under military dictatorship, 1976-1983; Tajikistan under its civil war, 1992-1997).

The book’s accomplishments include a balanced and comprehensive analysis of the activities of NGOs active in the democratic transformation of the three countries cited. Fisher shows that the NGOs in each country have laid their own unique groundwork.

However, all NGOs engaged in the democratization of society have serious shortcomings. They include weak organizational and financial management; an inability to interact with government, business, media, and other NGOs; negligible influence on decision-making processes and the formation of political culture; an underestimation of the importance of fundraising; and underdeveloped or no contacts with international NGOs.

The achievements of civil society in any one of the countries could prove exceptionally useful for public organizations in the other two. Julie Fisher’s main thesis is that NGOs should be the primary agents of new ideas and democratic values borrowed from each other or outside sources. The task of these organizations is to apply the groundwork laid by others to the national culture and traditions of their host country, thereby creating a transnational civil society with an innovative world outlook and ideals.

Other key participants in the transition to democracy are international donors, who must be attentive to the development of democratic trends in potential recipient countries and provide maximum support. Donors, in the opinion of Julie Fisher, should work on their mistakes and draw lessons from past instances when the principle of comprehensively analyzing and taking account of the national context was frequently violated. In general, the author considers foreign aid to be an important, and often necessary, condition for the establishment of democracy.

“Work on foreign donors’ mistakes”

For all the external appeal of some of Julie Fisher’s ideas (the impossibility of imposing democracy by force; the importance of taking into account national characteristics in aiding development), her concept provokes weighty objections.

The experience of international donors in developing countries and countries with emerging economies indicates that the attempt to import democracy has failed. The models, institutions, and technologies of the West did not suit the recipient countries, which is further confirmation of the adage that “democracy is born from within, not presented from outside.”

But what the author most strikingly fails to mention is the following: in providing aid, donors are guided by their own political interests and seek to influence the character, contours, and reform priorities in the recipient country. In some cases, this has even led to regime change (the military operation in Libya in 2011, for example).

It is impossible not to recognize that foreign donors set and carry out political objectives. So is it even legitimate to talk about importing democracy? And to use a term that resembles the yesteryear concept of “exporting world revolution”?

As noted by analysts, foreign aid has given rise within civil society to the creation of a group of elite, well-funded, centralized, and bureaucratized organizations closely allied to and acting in the interests of the West. Instead of establishing horizontal links, especially at the regional and local levels, Western policy has reinforced the division of civil society.

It has also facilitated the emergence of “professional grant recipients,” skillfully adaptable to donors’ requests, regardless of the wider needs of society. International donors can also be reproached for focusing on short-term accounting results, while neglecting the long-term perspective.

The author of this review is not inclined to underestimate the important positive contribution made by foreign donors to the developing world. They bring new social models, modern legal and institutional standards, innovative project cultures, and financial practices, which help spread information technologies, train personnel, create expert communities, and promote the principles of gender equality and civic engagement. However, in dwelling on the prospects for importing democracy, it is necessary to bear in mind the negative aspects and even dangers that donor programs usually entail.

The book, which can serve as a practical guide for NGO activists, cites many vivid examples and little-known facts about the activities of public organizations and their heads. At the same time, it contains, in my view, a number of by no means incontrovertible and thought-provoking conclusions. This applies primarily to the key thesis regarding the import of democracy.

World practice in recent years has proved the democratic “transition” to be a failed experiment. Which is why Julie Fisher’s advice for international donors on how to further the promotion of Western values and democratic principles and models in developing countries raises serious objections. That being said, the publication could attract a wide readership, especially those working in the thorny areas of civil society and international aid, as well as students and observers of the three countries selected for analysis: South Africa, Argentina and Tajikistan.

This article first appeared in Russian International Affairs Council.