Assumptions Check: Does Civil Society Aid Promote Democratization?

In a provocative recent Boston Review article called “Who Represents the Poor?” (link), UC-Berkeley economics professor Pranab Bardhan suggests that the proliferation of issue-advocacy NGOs in poor countries might actually be harming the cause of poverty reduction by distorting processes of representation and negotiation. Bardhan’s essay emphasizes economic development, but the questions he raises about the effects of NGO-centric organization are crucial ones for students and practitioners of political development as well. On that front, I’m at least as skeptical as Bardhan. Based on the scholarship I’ve seen, I think civil society aid is not an effective way to promote democratization and may even be hurting that cause.

To understand how, it’s important to recognize that the proliferation of issue-advocacy NGOs in the past two decades is not an organic development. At least in part, it’s a deliberate product of changes in foreign aid. As sociologist Sada Aksartova puts it (link), “Foreign aid is the biggest thing to happen to NGOs” since the end of the Cold War.

Democracy promoters have targeted NGOs so heavily in recent decades because they believe it will be effective; because it is bureaucratically expedient; and because they believe it is apolitical. In an edited volume that carefully and sympathetically assesses the practice and results of civil society aid (link), scholars Marina Ottoway and Thomas Carothers discuss the assumption that what’s good for advocacy NGOs is good for democracy.

A central assumption of civil society aid carried out under the auspices of democracy promotion is that advocacy NGOs are a critical segment, perhaps the critical segment, of civil society, at least with regard to democratization. That assumption stems from the belief that the advocacy function of those groups necessarily engages key democratic processes–such as representing interests, challenging the state, and fostering citizens’ participation–in ways that other kinds of civil society activities do not.

Ottoway and Carothers also weigh in on the second point, that funding NGOs is also bureaucratically expedient. In their judgment, donor agencies’ emphasis on civil society aid “also reflects the more mundane fact that it is easier for donors to assist professionalized NGOs than most of the other kinds of groups that make up civil society in developing and transitional countries, such as religious organizations, ethnic associations, and informal community groups.” Aksartova is more explicit:

For a donor agency such as USAID to incorporate NGOs into development practice, there had to be an organizational fit between the way donors go about their business and what NGOs have to offer…Donor organizations’ main activity, giving out money, predisposes them toward bureaucratic structures capable of processing funds and accounting for them. Professional NGOs are perceived as both legitimate and organizationally suitable recipients.

Last but not least, donor agencies have also favored civil society aid because they believe it is apolitical, or at least much less political than aid to anti-government groups and parties competing in elections would be. As Ottoway and Carothers summarize, “By fostering nonpartisan civic advocacy by NGOs, the assumption runs, donors can affect the political development of recipient countries without ever directly intervening in politics.”

In short, the proliferation of advocacy NGOs in the past 20 years or so is, in large part, a consequence of Western aid given with the good intentions of promoting democracy and alleviating poverty without intervening directly in recipient-country politics. Donor agencies like advocacy NGOs because they believe they are important and apolitical, and because they can ask for and receive the kinds of programmatic assistance those agencies are designed to distribute.

Civil society aid appears to be producing the first-order effects it’s meant to produce; as civil society aid has risen, the number of advocacy NGOs operating in “developing” countries has grown tremendously. But what about the second-order effects that are supposed to be the real point of this aid: democratization and poverty reduction? Here, the findings from the small number of empirical studies I’ve seen are rather discouraging. In their overview of Western democracy promotion in post-Communist countries (link), scholars Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchick conclude that Western civil society aid “can have perverse consequences. Such interventions, for example, can divide and demobilize societies, rather than empower them.” One of the studies they cite is Sarah Henderson’s work on the effects of civil society aid in post-Soviet Russia. In a 2002 article entitled “Selling Civil Society” (link/$), she concludes that,

Although Western assistance has provided tangible equipment and training for NGOs, overall funding designed to facilitate the growth of civil society has had unintended consequences. Institutions, interests, and incentive structures impede successful collective action toward building a civic community by encouraging both funders and NGO activists to pursue short-term benefits over long-term development. The result is the creation of patron-client ties between the international donor and the Russian recipient rather than horizontal networks of civic engagement among Russian NGOs and their domestic audience.

Ottoway and Carothers consider an array of case studies from several regions and reach similar judgments. On the effectiveness of advocacy NGOs as vehicles for the representation of citizens’ interests, they land in the same neighborhood as Prabhan.

Although donor-supported advocacy NGOs influence policy in some places, their ability to represent citizens’ interests often remains weak…The distance separating many advocacy NGOs from their own societies is often related to the kind of people who gravitate to the NGO sector and to the nature of technocratic policy advocacy work. Yet it also stems from those NGOs’ dependence on donors. The survival of the advocacy NGOs in the short run often depends more on their ability to talk to and engage the donors than their ability to talk to and engage their fellow citizens. Donors’ preferences lead NGOs to use certain kinds of language and organize around issues that may appear abstract or remote to their countrymen.

On the impact of the NGO-ization of civil society on democratization, they are similarly skeptical. “While far from conclusive,” the evidence from the cases they compare “raises doubts about the contribution to pluralism of the type of civil society that democracy assistance engenders. It appears that NGO-oriented democracy assistance promotes a pluralism that is more organizational than political. The policy followed by many donors, of promoting large numbers of NGOs through numerous small grants while at the same time promoting a narrow range of types and orientations of NGOs, has led to civil societies that are much less pluralistic than the numbers suggest.”

The idea that civil society aid is apolitical also fails to withstand closer scrutiny. In their comparative analysis, Ottoway and Carothers point out that “civil society aid is constantly confronting political issues large and small.” As examples, they mention the complex relationship between advocacy NGOs and the politics of religion in Egypt; efforts by prominent human-rights NGOs to topple authoritarian regimes in Peru and Philippines; and the anti-Communist partisan leanings of NGOs favored by Western donors in Romania in early 1990s. Their conclusion is appropriately harsh:

That the NGO sectors of transitional countries–and, by extension, the aid programs that support them–are often directly involved in partisan politics and open political struggle is not a flaw or a confusion of purpose. It is a normal feature of civil society in a democracy…The point is that some donors’ belief that civil society promotion allows them to foster democratization without actually being political, or partisan, is an illusion…Recipeints…with good reason, often perceive such donor institutions as highly political despite their protestations of political neutrality.

In sum, civil society aid doesn’t seem to be either as effective or as politically neutral as donors assume. Over the past 20 years, this aid has helped to fuel a boom in advocacy NGOs, but the proliferation and sustenance of these organizations is distorting politics in many “developing” countries in unintended ways. These distortions are not helping, and may even be hurting, the larger goal of democracy promotion. In light of this evidence, it would be nice to see donors stepping back from this kind of aid, or at least treading much more carefully. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic imperatives and diplomatic pressures involved seem to have locked us onto this track for some time to come.

POSTSCRIPT: A few days after this post went up, Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel ran a report on civic engagement and attitudes toward democracy in Qatar, based on the latest wave of the Qatar World Values Survey (QWVS). According to that report, “Civic participation in Qatar is actually associated not only with reduced support for democracy itself, but also with a disproportionate lack of the values and behaviors thought to be essential to it, including confidence in government institutions and social tolerance. In Qatar, the QWVS showed that civic participation cannot lead individuals toward a greater appreciation for democracy, for it is precisely those who least value democracy that tend to be most actively engaged.” You can find the whole thing here.

Leave a comment


  1. Thanks for an interesting post. I have two questions. First, is the problem civil society aid per se or how we deliver civil society aid? In other words, is there a way to more effectively promote civil society without all the pitfalls you list above. Second, what do you make of the important role issue-specific NGOs, including many that receive foreign support in some fashion, played in the Egyptian revolution?

    Thanks again!

    • 1. Based on the research I mention, I think the process by which civil society aid is delivered is an important part of the problem. That said, it’s hard to imagine how it could be done very differently by a large, contract-making bureaucracy hamstrung by all kinds of congressional mandates. In other words, I can imagine different approaches working in a vacuum, but I don’t think those alternatives can actually happen in political reality.

      2. I don’t know enough of the details of the Egyptian revolution–which groups were most influential, and how much foreign support they received–to answer your 2nd question. In general, though, I would caution against selecting cases with favorable outcomes and foreign engagement and assuming the latter caused the former. In the cases I know better, I think the counterfactual of (no foreign funding + similar outcome) is often quite plausible.

  2. This is an interesting post. I can certainly buy the argument that NGO funding has the potential to create perverse incentives for a recipient organization. What I find harder to buy is that this funding would demobilize societies. Outside funding does not push out domestic funding, so unless the only civil society that exists is that funded by outsiders, others could quite easily learn from their practices, without destroying their brands by being linked to outside groups.

    I think a good argument could be made that it is money wasted, but it’s harder to argue that this is actually hurting democratization.

    • I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea that foreign funding redirects domestic activity in ways that can diminish prospects for democracy. I’m sure it doesn’t always happen like that, but I believe that it can and does. The political space in which these NGOs operate is like lots of “markets,” where more successful organizations can crowd out newcomers by luring political entrepreneurs away from other activities and hogging the conversation. People who might be getting busy building political parties are instead busy writing proposals for foreign funding, organizing seminars, and so on.

      I don’t mean to sound like a terrible cynic here. I believe that many of these NGOs are doing good and important work, and that many of the people involved in the process I’m critiquing have the best of intentions. I just think we need to think more carefully about the potential distortions and not just parrot the lines that NGO-centric civil society is an unmitigated good and that foreign aid makes it bigger and therefore better. And don’t get me started (again) on the claim that it’s apolitical…

      • This is a fair point, although I think it definitely depends on the context. In societies with high rates of literacy and traditions of civic participation I would think that there would be plenty of grant writers to go around.

        I must admit, this is the first time I am reading these articles. However, I get the impression that there are two very different kinds of Western funding of NGOs that are being discussed in the articles you cite. Bunce and Wolchick seem to focus on Western funding of NGOs in advance of elections, noting that funding these NGOs in advance of elections can have unintended consequences which may not always coincide with the interests of the donors. On the other hand, Henderson and Ottoway and Carothers are looking at long term development or democratic deepening – which has entirely different effects on civic participation in general.

        I tend to agree with your cynical side when it comes to long term development, but in the context of elections, it seems that funding can have important impacts. In the context of democratization in North Africa today, it’s important to make the distinction between targeted financing for a particular goal (free elections), and general support for civil society, which may or may not be money well spent (or worse).

      • I think the distinction you’re highlighting between funding for advocacy NGOs and funding for electoral processes is an important one, and I did not mean to sweep the latter in with the former. I suspect you’re right about the potential benefits of election-specific aid. Bureaucratic capacity is a huge concern in that arena, and money can really help build that capacity. It’s also an area where the “best practices” approach is more likely to work. So, if I had to choose between paying NGOs and paying to help organize elections, I would definitely choose the latter.

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