The Challenge of Civil Society and Democracy Assistance

March 18, 2013

Democracy assistance programmes are often run by aid agencies and hence tend to get ignored  in discussions of public diplomacy but if you follow Nick Cull in embracing a minimal definition of public diplomacy as engagement with foreign publics in pursuit of foreign policy objectives  it certainly ticks the box (Cull 2008: xv).   Democracy assistance in sometimes thought of as having top down and bottom up elements; the former focuses on working with state institutions the latter  with civil society actors.   The latter activity raises a set interesting issues given  that public diplomacy theory and practice has embraced working with civil society actors (for instance in the Danish programme discussed in my last post.

There are a couple of interesting recent papers looking at the record of democracy assistance in the Eastern European space that raise some difficult issues.  Firstly, there’s a Chatham House briefing paper on Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine by Orysia Lutsevych and secondly, a paper on lessons of the assistance programmes to Slovakia and the Czech Republic for the Arab countries by Lucia Najšlová.

The Lutsevych paper argues that western support has created an ‘NGOcracy’ of elite organizations that have little connection to citizens or to the broader society; they conduct little media outreach, they don’t have members and don’t generate income from business actors but do know how to get grants from foreign donors.  While the author sees some hope for an oppositional civil society, from evidence of citizen activism and the impact of social media, her policy prescriptions seem inadequate given the scale of the problem – for instance donors should seek to support a broader range of actors and should include public outreach as performance target.  In reading this dissection the problems seem quite familiar – at the end of the ‘90s Thomas Carothers (1999) was pointing to similar issues with civil society programmes.

The occasion for Najšlová’s paper is the possible lessons from the Czech and Slovak experience for Arab countries but the situation in MENA is hardly mentioned; what we do get is a useful list of lessons for donors:

  1. It’s important to communicate the goals of programmes to host country governments and publics not just those directly involved in order to minimize nationalist backlashes.
  2. Donor support needs to be long term.
  3. Donors need to be willing to provide core funding for key organizations not just project funding.
  4. Donor should have a look at what has already been done and what organizations are already doing instead of insisting on new initiatives.
  5. Reform of public education systems should be a priority from the beginning.  In the long term this will reach a lot more people than any number of NGO training sessions.
  6. The biggest single factor in the transitions was the opportunities offered by membership of the EU.
  7. Assistance programmes need to be aligned with overall foreign donor foreign policy.

It’s the last two of these that leap out.  Despite Slovakia’s flirtation with authoritarian nationalism the opportunities offered by EU membership and the relative clarity of western policies overcame any resistance to the reforms demanded.  In Lutsevych’s cases (and even more in the MENA) this policy clarity is lacking.   Not only is EU membership not on the table but for significant forces in these countries Russian and Islamic models are countervailing draws.  The point is that political context matters.

The Danish-Arab Partnership Programme Strategic Framework Document for 2013-16 has a cover note with items for discussion by the Council for Development Policy

Item 1 is

To date, the large majority of Arab DAPP partners have come from liberal, secular, urban middle class backgrounds. Yet, looking across the region, faith-based organizations and political actors have significant popular support and could hold important reform potentials. It is therefore a challenge for the DAPP to increase outreach to, and potentially also partnerships with faith-based actors who acknowledge fundamental democratic principles. Many Danish DAPP partners express a wish to further address this challenge, yet find it hard to build relations beyond ‘the usual suspects’ in practice. How does the DAPP address this challenge by ensuring a broad and inclusive outreach in the MENA region?

On the basis of the two papers here this is going to be a tough problem to solve

Lutsevych, O. (2013) How to Finish a Revolution: Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. London: Chatham House.

Najslova, L. (2013) Foreign Democracy Assistance in the Czech and Slovak Transitions: What Lessons for the Arab World. Giza, Madrid, Den Haag: AFA, FRIDE, HIVOS.

Carothers, T. (1999) Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Cull, N. (2008) The Cold War and the United States Information Agency : American propaganda and public diplomacy, 1945-1989. Cambridge ;;New York: Cambridge University Press.


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