The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democracy promotion is failing. Here’s why.

Opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League for Democracy and Nobel Peace Prize winner, arrives at a polling station in Yangon, Burma, on Sunday to cast her vote. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

People around the world were watching as Burma voted Sunday. The results of the election — the first there since the end of 50 years of military rule — will be pivotal for the country, also known as Myanmar. A number of international election observer groups have been present, attempting to evaluate whether the process is truly free and fair amid a number of concerns about state repression, discrimination against the Rohingya minority and post-election violence.

In Burma and elsewhere, the ability of the international community to successfully promote democracy is being questioned.

According to some observers, we are in an era of “resurgent dictatorship.” Although this phenomenon has a number of dimensions, one prominent characteristic of the authoritarian backlash against democracy is the proliferation of domestic laws restricting the activities of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and preventing foreign funding of local NGOs. As James Savage of Amnesty International said in a recent interview, “This global wave of restrictions has a rapidity and breadth to its spread we’ve not seen before, that arguably represents a seismic shift and closing down of human rights space not seen in a generation.”

A number of countries have been in the headlines this year for enacting these restrictive laws, which Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace refers to as the “closing space challenge.” Russia made the news in July when it banned the National Endowment for Democracy from working within its borders. China also has been considering measures that would regulate and significantly hamper foreign NGOs. Although Russia and China may be among the most prominent countries engaging in these tactics, they are hardly unique. In 2013, Darin Christensen and Jeremy Weinstein examined 98 countries and found most had either prohibited or restricted foreign funding for local NGOs. Moreover, an examination of a complete sample of states between 1993 and 2012 by Kendra Dupuy, James Ron and Aseem Prakash found that 45 countries had adopted similarly restrictive laws.

The passage of laws that target foreign support for civil society has had significant consequences for international efforts to advance democracy and human rights in the developing world. Since the 1980s, there has been a tremendous growth in foreign aid programs designed to advance democracy and human rights. As I document in my recent book, the United States has been a leader on this front, giving about $3 billion annually in recent years to democracy assistance programs. In addition, most European democracies — including recently transitioned states — and international institutions have been major donors.

Foreign aid programs supporting democracy and human rights in the developing world pursue a number of activities. They support the capacity of local civil society organizations, train journalists and election officials, and encourage women’s political participation. In the end, these activities are designed to encourage countries’ democratic transition and consolidation. Yet the restrictions that many countries are placing on the work of democracy promoters make it difficult for organizations engaged in democracy assistance to choose the programs that they think are most likely to lead to democratization.

In other words, countries’ restrictions increasingly encourage what I refer to as a “tame” approach to aiding democracy abroad.

Restrictions on foreign-funded activities are not limited to the passage of laws — they also include informal tactics. Consider an example from my field research in Jordan. In 2012, I spoke to a woman working for an NGO who had prepared for months to host a training session for political parties. On the day of the workshop, several men who were not on her participant list showed up. The men sat quietly throughout the workshop, taking notes and observing the day’s events but not participating in the activities on crafting messages, developing platforms and designing voter outreach. As the workshop continued, the other participants became uncomfortable. Although the men had introduced themselves as members of an unspecified political party, it was clear to her that they were observers from the Mukhabarat, Jordan’s omnipresent and highly professional General Intelligence Directorate (GID). Unfortunately, such an anecdote is becoming increasingly familiar for NGO employees and funders from Cairo to Beijing.

People in the field of democracy assistance must worry about maintaining good relations with the governments in the countries where they work. And those governments carefully monitor the foreign-funded programs within their borders. The end result is that it is harder than ever for states to directly and effectively aid democracy overseas. Sometimes, the consequence is the cessation of foreign NGOs and foreign-funded domestic NGOs. In Egypt, the headline-grabbing 2013 convictions of 43 people working for foreign and foreign-funded NGOs have been followed by yet more state repression of domestic civil society.

Other times, the foreign NGOs and foreign-funded domestic NGOs are allowed to continue their work but must switch tactics to a tamer form of democracy assistance that refrains from directly confronting undemocratic rulers and sometimes even cooperates with them. In Azerbaijan, programs supporting women and youths in undemocratic environments have been criticized for failing to support “meaningful social change.”

While the direct repression of foreign NGOs may be more shocking and newsworthy now, the indirect suppression and co-optation of these organizations may ultimately prove an even greater obstacle to democracy promotion in the years to come.

Sarah Bush is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University. Her research focuses on democracy promotion, human rights and gender policy, and international relations. She is the author of “The Taming of Democracy Assistance: Why Democracy Promotion Does Not Confront Dictators (Cambridge University Press, 2015). You can follow her on Twitter @sarahsunnbush.