Can International Election Monitoring Harm Governance? Actually, Yeah

According to a convincing new paper (ungated version here) by political scientists Alberto Simpser and Daniela Donno, the answer is a definite yes.

As election monitoring has increased, governments intent on cheating have learned to strategically adapt, relying less on election-day fraud, and instead increasing their use of pre-election manipulation that is less likely to be criticized and punished…

We argue that when election monitoring missions encourage an increase in pre-election manipulation, they can unwittingly have negative effects on institutional quality and governance. While the effects of ballot fraud are generally limited to influencing electoral outcomes, many pre-election tools of manipulation—such as restricting media freedom and undermining judicial independence—have additional and much deeper consequences for the rule of law, bureaucratic quality, and governmental accountability.

We put our proposition to the test using an original dataset of 944 elections in 144 countries around the world, from 1990 to 2007. The dataset features comprehensive information on the presence of election monitoring missions from 12 reputable international organizations and NGOs. In a series of quantitative analyses, we find evidence that highquality election monitoring missions are associated with a decrease in the rule of law, bureaucratic quality, and media freedom. This finding is robust to a number of specifications, including an instrumental-variables approach that corrects for the possibility that monitoring could be endogenous to changes in governance.

It’s virtually impossible to establish causality from studies of observational data like this one, but Simpser and Donno do a good job increasing our confidence in their interpretation of the evidence with smart design choices and robustness checks. They also reinforce their argument with compelling anecdotes of the unintended effects in action in several recent cases. Here, for example, is how they describe the “spillover” effects in Peru in 2000:

Expecting intense international scrutiny in the 2000 election, incumbent president Alberto Fujimori expended considerable effort and resources to bribe legislators and Supreme Court judges, and to secure control over the media, in the years preceding that election. McMillan and Zoido-Lobatón (2004), on the basis of a leaked series of incriminating videos, estimate that Fujimori and his close aides spent over $3 million per month on bribes to TV stations. The losses to society associated with such actions are extensive. First, governance, the rule of law, and freedom of the media were clearly undermined in a general sense, even if their primary motivation was to guarantee Fujimori a third term of rule. Second, managing the entire system of corruption—obtaining resources for bribing, giving out the bribes, and supervising the media to keep it all under wraps—undoubtedly diverted the attention of top government officials from the tasks of governing. As Shleifer and Vishny (1993) argue, covert corruption is especially damaging to societal well-being, because it provides incentives for government to allocate resources to those sectors where it can most easily pursue corruption, not those with the greatest potential for social and economic development.

The authors are quick to point out that the negative effects they observe do not mean that international election observation is necessarily a bad idea, just that its effects are more complicated than we often presume.

Our findings do not imply that monitoring is unambiguously harmful. Even in cases where monitoring harms governance, it could have other positive effects, possibly over the longer-term, that balance or even outweigh the negative consequences. A more complex analysis would therefore be necessary in order to assess the full welfare effects of monitoring. What we have shown here is that the possibility of spillover effects [on governance and press freedom] should be included in any such assessment.

Ironically, the strategic interplay between regimes and observers that seems to be driving these unintended and unfortunate side-effects is reminiscent of the cat-and-mouse games those same regimes play with their domestic opponents. The neighborhood watchdog chases the house cat who hunts the mouse who calls for help from the dog…

Peace *and* Elections in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is slated to hold its next national elections in the not-too-distant future. Presidential balloting is due in 2014, and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2015. As it happens, that’s about the same time NATO is supposed to hand over full responsibility for security in the country to the Government of Afghanistan.

The coincidence of these inflection points has some people worried, and it should. For a while now, international interventionists of various stripes have portrayed democratic elections as catalysts of peace in countries beset by civil wars. The thinking goes something like this: Civil wars are really just domestic politics by other means–in other words, fights over governance. To resolve these fights, you need to get to a government that all parties to the conflict consider legitimate. Free and fair elections are the only way to get to legitimate government nowadays; ergo, you can’t get to conflict resolution without going through elections.

In an important recent paper, however, political scientists Dawn Brancati and Jack Snyder argue that elections held soon after civil wars end are more likely to spur renewed fighting than they are to cement the peace. “Bringing quantitative evidence to bear on this heretofore largely qualitative policy debate,” they write, “we find that the skeptics are correct in their central claim: holding elections too soon after a civil war raises substantially the risk of war occurring again.”

This outcome isn’t inevitable, of course. From their statistical analysis, Brancati and Snyder also conclude that “decisive victories, demobilization, and peacekeeping diminish the fighting capacity of former combatants who might otherwise be tempted to return to war when faced with unfavorable election results.” Importantly, they also argue that international actors can help bring about these more propitious conditions, or at least to avoid pressing for the unfavorable combination of unstable peace and quick elections.

International involvement has often pushed for early elections in risky conditions, when recently warring factions remain well armed and able to use violence to contend for power. Indeed, international actors have helped create these conditions in the first place by pressing warring factions to reach settlements before one side has defeated the other. However, international actors can sometimes create conditions that mitigate the risk posed by early elections when they provide robust peacekeeping, facilitate the demobilization of armed forces, back power sharing agreements, and help build robust political institutions. Thus, we argue that international pressure in favor of early elections strengthens peace when it provides these stabilizing instruments, but it undermines peace when it is not backed by effective means to achieve stable democracy.

Unfortunately, none of the “favorable conditions” identified by Brancati and Snyder exists today in Afghanistan. For starters, there isn’t yet a peace agreement. It’s possible that a peace deal negotiated between now and 2014 might involve a power-sharing government, but that outcome would actually be in tension with the commitment to free and fair elections. Either the next elections are fair and competitive, in which case the power-sharing deal is essentially dead on arrival; or the power-sharing deal trumps the elections, in which case the balloting is an exercise in wasted spending and dashed expectations. Either way, the two processes seem to be working at cross purposes.

Some observers are already talking about how to put these processes on more complementary tracks. In a recent blog post for Foreign Policy in Focus, writer Conn Hallinan sees a cease-fire, a government of national unity, a constitutional assembly, a regional conference, and continued development assistance as the ingredients most likely to produce a successful exit from this messy tangle.

Hamish Nixon and Caroline Hartzell put more meat on some of those bones in a December 2011 report for the U.S. Institute for Peace, arguing that “any negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict should involve a set of transitional arrangements to govern the period between the signing of a peace settlement, a cease-fire, and the entry into force of more permanent institutions for conflict management.” That transitional period would involve negotiations over long-term institutions, the form of which would not necessarily be proscribed by the existing constitution. In their view,

A wide range of potential measures could create opportunities among the conflicting parties to share influence, as well as balance that influence with more roles for noncombatants, civilian political actors, and vulnerable groups.

Power sharing and reform are not mutually exclusive approaches to addressing the political dimensions of the conflict. A combination of power-sharing, power-dividing, power-creating, and power-diffusing mechanisms can provide groups within divided societies with assurances that they will not be permanently excluded from state power and resources, while generating more effective and accountable governance and establishing the foundations for a more capable, accountable, and resilient state.

In Afghanistan, this might include clarifying or even redefining the powers of the president, National Assembly, and the courts, modifying the relationship between the central government and provincial and district administrations, or creating and diffusing decision-making authority among new or existing institutions over issues such as appointments.

I don’t know whether either of these approaches would work, and I don’t know what other options might exist. I do know, though, that we should be dubious of the assumption that the upcoming elections will automatically advance the causes of peace and development in Afghanistan, as long as they’re sufficiently clean and well-run.

Why Democracies Fail…or How?

Over at the Center for Global Development‘s Views from the Center blog, visiting fellow Ethan Kapstein looks to the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives for lessons about why democracies fail. Drawing on his book with Nathan Converse, Kapstein starts by refuting a few widely-held notions about the causes of democratic breakdown:

Democracies do not fail for the reasons commonly supposed. They do not generally fail, for example, because of poor economic performance…Nor do democracies reverse while undergoing the process of economic reform…Finally, democracies are no more likely to be sustained by adopting parliamentary instead of presidential institutions.

So far, so good for me. Those claims generally align with findings from my statistical research (see here and here, for example), even though our studies used different data sets to measure democratic transitions and breakdown.

Where Kapstein slips, I think, is when he tries to offers a better explanation.

Why, then, do democracies fail? Our study identified several common factors. First, young democracies are often weakened by extreme levels of income inequality. Rising income inequality indicates a dysfunctional democratic state in which economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than one in which economic opportunities are widely shared and diffused….Second, young democracies that are unable to constrain the executive branch of power—whether presidential or parliamentary—will find it difficult to sustain participatory forms of government. The usual red flags here are changes—or attempts to change—the constitution, particularly with respect to term limits and electoral cycles…Third, democratic states that are ethnically fragmented face severe challenges of institution building they may be unable to overcome…Fourth, newly democratic states that do not provide adequate supplies of “public goods” like health care and education are unlikely to succeed.

Three items on that list–income inequality, ethnic fragmentation, and inadequate supplies of public goods–apply to most poor countries of any political stripe, and some of them even apply to most rich democracies. Because they are so generic, they don’t really help us distinguish between the democracies that fail and the ones that survive. (I have another problem with claims about the effects of income inequality in poor countries, but I’ll set that aside for now.)

The other item on that list–failure to constrain executive power–describes the very outcome Kapstein is trying to explain. When chief executives rewrite electoral laws or constitutions to ensure that they stay in power, we are witnessing the course of democratic breakdown, not its cause.

I think we can see the causes of democratic breakdown more clearly by focusing not on structural conditions, but on strategic dilemmas. In a book I wrote on the subject, I used a game-theoretic model to explore how leading political parties and the military might be expected to react to the temptations and fears they face in the highly uncertain environment of newly democratic politics. Consistent with conventional wisdom, I found that the spoils of state power will often tempt those organizations to try to seize or cement control of government in undemocratic ways.

More novel, I also found that groups will sometimes try to seize power as a defensive act, a preemptive strike against rivals whom they fear are plotting to do the same. We see this dynamic at work in Thailand in 2006 and Bangladesh in 2007, where military leaders seized power in coups when they feared that incumbent governments were institutionalizing their partisan advantage. We see it in Turkey today, where the ruling Justice and Development Party is arresting journalists and military officers in an overzealous effort to preempt an unlikely coup plot by its ardently secularist rivals.

These defensive pressures appear to have played a role in the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives as well. In Mali, mid-ranking officers seized power just one month before the next presidential election was scheduled to happen, and doubts about the fairness of that impending contest seem to have contributed to the officers’ decision, and to how the public has received it. Referring to the ousted president by his initials, one merchant told the New York Times, “A.T.T. can go to hell! He’s lied too much. Anyway, was he really going to organize elections?” In the Maldives, President Mohammed Hasheed was toppled after he tried to force a prominent judge from the bench, a move his rivals saw as a part of an unconstitutional expansion of his authority.

Combine these fears with the usual temptations of political power, and it’s easy to see why democratic consolidation is so hard. Structural conditions certainly shape the expected payoffs from different courses of action, but strategic uncertainty is the real engine of democratic breakdown.

This distinction matters for our thinking about how to respond to the problem and try to promote the survival of democratic regimes. In his blog post, Kapstein enumerates a few ideas:

What can the international community do to support newly elected regimes? A number of policies should be advanced, but all must have a common purpose: to dilute the existing concentrations of power. This means that foreign assistance should support the development of robust political parties; of inclusive systems of health care and education; and of a vibrant private sector.  Free trade agreements should be extended to new democracies, as well as schemes to promote international collaborative research and cultural engagement.

It’s hard to argue with efforts to expand health care, education, collaborative research, and cultural engagement. What I don’t like on this list is the proposal to “support the development of robust political parties” as a means to “dilute existing concentrations of power.” In practice, this usually means funding opposition parties.

The idea of constraining the government may be normatively appealing, but it’s strategically myopic. In effect, it privileges the opposition’s view. If we try to put ourselves in the shoes of incumbent officials–and, in some situations, military officers–we can see how foreign efforts to boost the strength of a political rival might appear menacing, and how that sense of menace could prompt those officials and officers to take countermeasures that directly erode or demolish democratic procedures. There may be some situations where this kind of assistance is warranted, but foreign governments and aid groups should meddle with caution in political rivalries on which the fate of other democracies may depend.

Today’s Democrat, Tomorrow’s Tyrant?

Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has popped onto my radar screen three times in 2012, and none of the stories involved has done much to bolster the prevailing image of her in the West as a heroic liberal democrat.

First, in January, a New York Times op-ed called attention to a series of land grants Sirleaf has made over the past several years that have effectively put more than one-third of her country’s land under the control of foreign corporations while dispossessing the rural Liberians who live there. According to op-ed’s author, conservation prize-winner Silas Siakor,

More than a million people live in the regions where the palm-oil concessions were granted. And roughly 150,000 will be directly affected in the first five years of plantation development. Many could lose access to their homes, farms, cemeteries and sacred sites as well as the forest and water resources they depend on for survival. Yet the government negotiated these deals without consulting those who would bear the greatest burden.

Then came a mid-March interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper in which President Sirleaf defended laws in her country that effectively criminalize homosexuality. “We like ourselves just the way we are,” she said. “We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve.”

Meanwhile, President Sirleaf continues to resist calls to remove her son, Robert, who also serves as her senior adviser, from his post as chairman of the country’s national oil company, NOCAL. According to Africa Review, President Sirleaf has repeatedly dismissed complaints of nepotism from watchdog groups who have questioned his motives and qualifications. “What’s wrong with me appointing my son on NOCAL Board as chairman?” she reportedly asked on a recent radio call-in show. “He is qualified. Why should I deny him the opportunity to work for his country?”

These stories have got to be causing some headaches among Western diplomats, who have frequently touted Sirleaf as the kind of little-d “democrat” of which Africa needs more. Indeed, when asked about President Sirleaf’s comments on her country’s anti-gay laws, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland reiterated Secretary Clinton’s position that gay rights are human rights and expressed concern about the president’s remarks.

Viewing these stories through a wider lens, I think Sirleaf’s slippage illustrates the risks we take when we personalize democracy promotion. For as long as I’ve been watching, Western governments have tended to view democratization as a Manichean struggle  between camps committed to “democratic” and “autocratic” values. These groups are usually identified in sociological terms, if not by proper name, and their identities are thought to remain fixed over time. Where the democrats gain the upper hand, democracy consolidates. Where the autocrats prevail, transitions stall or fail, and authoritarian rule continues.

What gets missed in this personification of democratization is how the interests of political elites often evolve with changes in their status. Checks on government power that sound like common sense to outsiders sometimes don’t always seem so appealing when you finally make it to the inside and are trying to get things done. Actions that seemed dubious when taken by someone else can make perfect sense when you know and trust your own motives.

As I discussed in a previous post, human psychology probably also plays a role. According to prospect theory, when considering possible courses of action, humans weigh potential losses more heavily than comparable gains, and we evaluate both against a subjective reference point–usually the status quo. Psychologists call this pattern loss aversion, and it’s easy to see how it might strengthen the temptation for one-time “democrats” to cling to the spoils of power once in office.

I don’t know Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and I don’t know enough about Liberian politics to predict with confidence where all this is heading. What I can say is that promoting democracy by picking heroes is a risky game. If our governments want to support democratic consolidation in places like Liberia, they would do better to eschew the search for “soulmates.” Far more important than these shiny personalities are the humdrum agencies tasked with protecting civil rights, channeling citizen participation, and constraining authority no matter who’s in power. If you’re going to champion someone, don’t make it the charming leader who spouts the buzzwords diplomats and bankers want to hear. Instead, make it the honest cop, judge, or civil servant who sounds like her neighbors.

Why We Shouldn’t Be Quite So Surprised by the Coup in Mali

Soldiers toppled the government of Mali in a coup d’etat yesterday. As Stanford Ph.D. candidate Ken Opalo notes on his blog, this turn of events has caught many people by surprise, because Mali has long been regarded as a democratic standout in Africa.

Since (re)democratization in the early 1990s Mali has routinely been cited as a case of democratic consolidation despite seemingly insurmountable odds (poor HDI scores, etc.). The current developments, however, raise serious questions with regard to whether the Malian political and military elite have wholly bought into the idea of settling their battles for power and influence at the ballot.

As it happens, the risk of a coup attempt in Mali in 2012 was more apparent in a statistical forecasting exercise I did at the start of the year. According to that analysis, Mali was the 10th riskiest country in the world, ranking behind nine other African countries–most of which, unlike Mali, have suffered coup attempts in the past few years–and Bangladesh.

The statistical modeling isn’t as complicated as it sounds. That analysis pushed Mali toward the top of the list because Mali’s structural conditions in 2011 look a lot like conditions in other countries that have suffered coup attempts in recent decades.

I wonder, though, if a coup in Mali also seems surprising because we’ve been overstating how democratic that country really was. Since 1992, when Mali began holding competitive multiparty elections, many observers have called out Mali as an African success story, an inspiring example of how democratization can progress under challenging conditions.

That’s not what I saw, however, when I took an admittedly cursory look at politics in Mali several years ago, while making data for a research project on transitions to and from democracy. At the time, I saw legislative elections in early 1997 that had been plagued by serious flaws, and many of the accounts I read implicated members of the leading Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA) party in the discovered instances of electoral misconduct. Under an agreement between the incumbent president Alfred Konare and several opposition leaders, the Constitutional Court annulled the results later that month, but the court refused to reschedule the presidential contest, and Konare cruised to re-election with nearly 96 percent of the vote when the opposition boycotted. Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported that dozens of members and supporters of the opposition had been arrested ahead of the elections, and some were allegedly tortured. When legislative elections were re-run later in 1997, Konare’s allies won a large majority of seats, effectively consolidating the ruling party’s grip on power by questionable means.

When I mentioned my take on Malian democracy on Twitter this morning, I heard some affirmations, but I also got some pushback. Senam Beheton, for example, argued that, “Regardless of Western plaudits, Mali stood out because the process was driven by Malians based on Mali’s interests.”

I concede that Mali is an ambiguous case, whatever your precise definition of democracy. Still, the surprise many people are expressing about the coup makes me wonder about the consequences of our lowered expectations for democratization in poor countries, and perhaps for Africa in particular. For logistical reasons alone, it’s really hard to hold fair elections. And, as anyone who’s spent any time watching politics can tell you, the logistical challenges are only part of the problem; people everywhere will also do all sorts of things in search of an edge. When we see this stuff in rich countries, we call it a crime. When we see it in poor countries, though, we’re more likely to excuse it as growing pains or technical difficulties.

In school, we’d call that grading on a curve, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As I noted in a previous post, there’s often an instrumental quality to Western narratives about democratization in places like Mali. Looking for exemplars that might inspire other societies, we sometimes choose to ignore or downplay procedural flaws that would raise howls in other contexts. For purposes of democracy promotion, that might even be a sound idea.

Still, in the wake of Mali’s coup, I can’t help wondering if all that cheerleading isn’t part of why we’re so surprised and confused today. I see similar problems in our thinking about Senegal, another supposed exemplar of democracy in Africa where an elected president has tightened his grip on power. Ditto for Ukraine, which went from Orange Revolution darling to creeping authoritarianism in about the same amount of time it took Mali to make its slide in the 1990s. When we keep telling ourselves that things are going great, we often stop refreshing our view and miss the signs of decline and change. “Surely it can’t happen here” turns out to be a pretty dangerous idea.

Constitution-Writing in Egypt

Simon Frasier University’s Tamir Moustafa has published a new paper (PDF) on constitution-writing in Egypt that is meant to draw attention to “the gulf between ‘best practices’ in constitutional design and the political realities of the Egyptian transition.” He writes:

As the fundamental document establishing a framework for governance, the new Egyptian constitution will have a lasting effect on Egyptian law, politics, and society for years to come. However, Egypt’s transition is shaping up to be a case study in how not to initiate a constitution-writing process. If Egypt is to emerge with a stable constitutional order that protects basic rights, it will be in spite of the mismanaged transition dictated by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

According to Moustafa, SCAF’s mismanagement results from its arrogance and selfishness. “Acting in a unilateral and opaque manner,” he writes, “SCAF has continually changed the rules of political transition to suit its own evolving interests.” The transition would be go much better if SCAF would take their cues from “experts in constitutional design,” who “emphasize the importance of an inclusive and transparent process for achieving buy-in from major political actors and a sense of ownership among the general public.”

An inclusive and transparent process may be the best way to go if the objective is to achieve stable democracy. But for whom is that really a goal? The expert prescription Moustafa endorses assumes the existence of powerful but disinterested overseer–a manager rather than a politician–or at least a political society dominated by a set of groups who see durable democracy as a desirable end in itself.

This prescription, and the critique of Egypt’s constitution-writing process that Moustafa bases on it, are emblematic of a technical modernist worldview that pervades applied academic work on democratization. According to this view, political institutions can and should be designed to solve social problems. During transitional moments, political leaders are expected to behave as if they were in Rawls’ original position, adopting a “veil of ignorance” about their current assets and future interests so they might construct a set of rules that will be fairest to all.

The prescriptions that emerge from this technocratic perspective can be both correct and unrealistic at the same time, like specifications for a hyper-efficient car that can only operate in the vacuum of space. More realistic about what’s happening in Egypt, I suspect, is Nathan Brown’s description of a process of gradual and uneven change driven by the self-interested behavior of powerful organizations. Where Moustafa chides SCAF for mismanaging the transition, Brown assumes the extrication of the security establishment from Egyptian politics will take decades because it is so powerful and deeply embedded.

The Egypt of the past half century has been one in which the security establishment exercised control over civilian life. There are now powerful forces at work that seek a reversal so that there will be civilian oversight of the security establishment. This may be a Herculean task but it is not completely a Sisyphean one. An attainable goal over the short term may be a relaxation of security vetting for sensitive state institutions…There will be no sudden change — the geriatric leadership of many Egyptian state institutions will neither step aside quickly nor allow the floodgates to open immediately — but the slow transformation of state institutions to be far more diverse is a likely result even if it occurs at a glacial pace.

In contrast to Moustafa’s admonition of SCAF to follow “best practices,” Brown’s simply assumes that security forces will continue to pursue their organizational interests. In fact, he expects other powerful corporate groups to do the same, mostly by using the current uncertainty to grab as much autonomy as they can, and he sees the resulting tugs of war as the defining feature of Egyptian politics for at least the next two decades.

The institutions brought long ago under presidential domination are now striving hard to wriggle free. Two of the major tools they seek to use to achieve independence are the ability to select their own leaders from their own ranks (rather than have the president dominate the institution through a hand-picked sycophant) and the writing of a law that will give them full institutional autonomy from other parts of the Egyptian state. The leading Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, has already achieved some of that goal; labor unions, the judiciary, professional associations, and the universities will be working to shove their way to the agenda of the newly-elected parliament to attain something similar. In a sense, the military is seeking the same thing: to be able to run its own affairs, administer its own budget, make its own security policy, and select its own leaders with only minimal civilian oversight. Many of these causes (such as the judiciary’s claim on independence) are popular; some (such as the military’s) are far more controversial but still backed by powerful political forces.

Even if the specifics turn out differently, Brown’s mental model of the transition process is surely more realistic than Moustafa’s. As I wrote in a recent post, democratic transitions are not ruptures in history that wipe away old institutions and replace them with new ones. Instead, they are more like floods that add a new layer of institutions atop the old ones, and the interactions between the old and new can take a long time to play out.

Western policymakers looking for levers to pull will probably find Brown’s analysis more frustrating that Moustafa’s, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. The best strategies are based on realistic assessments of what’s possible, not hopeful visions of how we want them to be. I hope Egypt finds its way to a durable democratic government soon. If that happens, though, it won’t be because SCAF catches democracy fever. Instead, it would probably happen when the array of powerful groups Brown sees pursuing their own interests get stuck in a stalemate and grudgingly forge a compromise.

The Geology of Democratization

For the past 25 years, when we’ve talked about democratization, we’ve used the lexicon of transitions. As the prevailing narrative would have it, the breakdown of authoritarian rule launches a process of institution-building that leads eventually to democracy. Political democratization is the conjoined twin of social and economic modernization, and any country moving away from an authoritarian regime can usefully be described as “in transition” to a democratic one.

In geological terms, the transitions approach likens democratization to the production of igneous rock. Over time, pressures build under the crust of an existing authoritarian order. When that pressure becomes too intense, an eruption occurs. The old order is shattered, and fresh material pours onto the surface. That fresh material gradually but inexorably cools and hardens into a new, more modern order. The process might take a while, and parts of the new formation might crack and crumble while young, but the basic process is one of unidirectional transformation through disruption, replacement, and consolidation.

I don’t think the transitions metaphor works very well, and I’m not alone in that view. Ten years ago, Thomas Carothers wrote an essay called “The End of the Transitions Paradigm” that nicely showed how the transitions metaphor misrepresented the messier reality of modern regime change, and how that mismatch had often led Western foreign policy and aid astray.

Carothers’ essay was read widely in professional circles, but it doesn’t seem to have produced the gestalt shift to which its title aspired. Twenty years after the Soviet Union disintegrated, we still talk about the states born of that collapse being “lost in transition.” One of the first things the U.S. Department of State did after the Arab Spring hit was to open a Middle East Transitions Office that could coordinate and oversee U.S. policy toward the three “transition countries” of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) still maintains an Office of Transition Initiatives that motivates its existence with a narrative of disruption, opportunity, and consolidation.

I think the biggest problem with the transitions metaphor is that it misrepresents the nature of the underlying change process. Returning to the language of geology, I think democratization is more like the production of sedimentary rock than igneous. Institutions aren’t destroyed, replaced, and consolidated; as Francis Fukuyama masterfully describes in The Origins of Political Order, they are laid down in layers. New and old abut and sometimes comingle at the edges, but the one does not supplant the other. Instead, many layers coexist, and over time the process of layering interacts with other forces, like gravity and erosion, to produce something different from the sum of its parts. The heart of the process is not disruption but accretion. Change does not occur in a sequence; instead, it occurs through the interaction of multiple processes occurring on different time scales.

We can see this kind of accretive process occurring in “transitional” countries like Egypt, where the dramatic changes that have followed Mubarak’s ouster–the establishment of a new ruling council, the emergence of new political parties, and the convocation of a freshly elected parliament–have been poured atop a political economy that does yet not seem to have cracked or shifted.

We can see the interaction between layering and other forces in “consolidating” countries like Turkey, where the military’s role as political overseer wasn’t ended abruptly but instead shifted gradually as military elites became sandwiched between strengthening Islamist forces and the hardening expectations of its NATO allies.

We can even see these complex and cumulative effects at work in authoritarian regimes like China’s, where traditional kinship groups are the organizational form through which some of the most powerful demands for democratization are being expressed. Those demands, in turn, are arising in response to land grabs driven by the interplay of newer forces of globalization and long-standing forms of elite privilege.

Carothers’ 2002 essay might not have transformed the way we talk about democratization, but it’s not because he was wrong. Where the prevailing metaphor sees disruption and displacement, a closer look at the world suggests a more complex process of accumulation and gradual transformation. Maybe intellectual orders work like political ones, and the shift away from teleological metaphors of transition and consolidation will happen gradually and subtly. However it happens, it would be nice to see it happen soon.

Cats and Mice, Regimes and Oppositions

On Monday, Russian provocateur Alexei Navalny posted something on his English-language blog that caught my eye. Over the weekend, more than 100,000 Russians had gathered in a Moscow stadium to support President Putin’s re-election bid. You could forgive a Putin opponent for being disheartened by the scene, but where others might see these massive pro-Putin rallies, or “putings,” as signs of an impending defeat, Navalny saw opportunity:

All these putings are a great gift to us.

Look: 200 thousand people gather in one location. And 80 per cent of them are those very ‘people of the off-line’ whom we can’t reach via the Internet.

Now there’ll be no need to drop leaflets into mail boxes, or stick them in doorways, or hand them out near subway stations. They’ve gathered 200 thousand voters together in one place and nudged them to talk politics.

We are unaware whether they’re pro- or antiputinists, we only know that they’re employees of state-financed business or state-run companies.

And now it’s us who’re getting the inside track: these people have already faced the bold lie and hypocrisy of the Chief Thief Putin & Co. They know quite well that they’ve been forced to attend the rally. They know how they’ve been fixed. How they’ve been carried by buses. They’re discussing that “at the head office they’ve given the staff two compensatory days off, while at out branch, only one”. The’re discussing, “At Moscow Electric Power Co. they’ve been paid a 3000 roubles bonus for the rally, and we – 1500. What an outrage”.

200 thousand people as well as their families (one million all in all) know for sure how they’ve been gathered and delivered; yet at the rally they hear from the stage, “We’ve gathered here with our own motion, in order to support blah blah blah”, and afterwards they listen with a grin to TV reports: “Tens of thousands of excited Moscovites, as one man, have come to the rally”.

All this creates favourable conditions for anti- Crooks And Thieves’ campaign, as it would be carried out amid shamelessly foul play.

So in case there are volunteers to go to the puting and agitate against Putin there, that would be a great idea.

Navalny’s judo-like attempt to redirect the force of pro-Putin mobilization against the regime is a brilliant example of the creativity, learning, and strategic adaptation that makes political mobilization so interesting to study and yet so difficult to explain and predict.

For the sake of convenience (and, perhaps, sanity), social scientists usually think of the phenomena we study as occurring in independent “cases,” which can be analyzed, compared, and contrasted as distinct and largely independent episodes. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The USSR in the 1980s vs. China today. Democratization in Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt.

This independence, however, is often an illusion born of our need to simplify in order to understand. That’s especially true for phenomena that involve rapid and deliberate imitation and adaptation. Marc Beissinger calls these “modular” phenomena, where modular refers to “action that is based in significant part on the prior successful example of others.” In his incisive analysis of the wave of “color” revolutions that swept the post-communist states in the 2000s, Beissinger points out that modular phenomena

present a challenge for social science theorizing, because the cross-case influences that in part drive their spread violate the assumption of the independence of cases that lies at the basis of much social scientific analysis…Modular phenomena based in the conscious emulation of prior successful example constitute only one form of cross-case influence; spillover effects, herding behavior, path-dependence, and reputational effects are other ways in which cases may be connected with one another. Not all social phenomena are modular, and Galton’s problem [of inferring causes from comparisons of interdependent cases] is not a universal one. But in a globalizing, electronic world in which local events are often monitored on a daily basis on the other side of the planet, the challenges posed to social scientific analysis by Galton’s problem (and by modular behavior in particular) are growing in many spheres of activity.

Beissinger goes on to show how modularity was evident not only in the diffusion of protest strategies and tactics across countries and over time, but also in the diffusion of authoritarian regimes’ responses to those protests:

Example exercises its effects not only on those who would look to it in support of change, but also on those who would potentially oppose it…Established elites opposing modular change learn the critical lessons of the model from its repeated successes and failures and impose additional institutional constraints on actors to prevent the model from succeeding further…This is evident in the growing restrictions on civil society organizations in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan…Moreover, regimes have increasingly turned to manipulating elections without engaging in outright fraud, thereby avoiding aspects of the model that might fuel opposition mobilization…The role of democracy-promoting NGOs like Soros and Freedom House in fostering modular democratic revolution has also precipitated a backlash against them from a number of post-Soviet states, which have begun to view them as revolutionary organizations and to restrict their activities.

These processes of imitation and adaptation can be powerful enough to help popular uprisings overwhelm structural conditions that would seem to tilt heavily against them. At the same time, these processes can also help apparently frail authoritarian regimes stifle and survive those challenges. In an article in the latest issue of Democratization, Evgeny Finkel and Yitzhak M. Brudny see the Russian government’s response to the uprisings that happened around it in the 2000s as a quintessential example of successful authoritarian counter-adaptation. They write:

The colour revolutions, and especially the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, are widely perceived as major international setbacks to Putin’s Russia. The Ukrainian events alarmed Russian elites, who feared the possibility of a local colour revolution during the 2007–2008 electoral cycle. To thwart the perceived colour revolution threat, Russian authorities adopted strategies that combined a political, administrative and intellectual assault on the opposition and Western ideas of democracy promotion. An integral part of this assault was, first, an attempt to create a mass youth movement, Nashi, as a counterweight to the various youth movements that were the driving forces behind the colour revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Second, it was an attempt to delegitimize the idea of liberal democracy itself, labelling it subversive and alien to the Russian national character.

That strategy seemed to work well for several years, but the reformist movement that has emerged in Russia in the past few months reminds us that these victories are never permanent. And, if Navalny’s blog post is any indication, the cunning regime is now confronting some equally shrewd opponents.

Political sociologists Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow see similar dynamics at play in protests against global trade and financial regimes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a fascinating recent paper, they write about the transnational diffusion not just of new forms of protest behavior, but also of police practices in response to them, and of the interplay between those two streams of learning. Intriguingly, the authors–two of the greats in the study of social movements–find that

the mechanisms that cause protester and police innovations to diffuse are remarkably similar, even though they can combine in different ways at different moments: promotion, the proactive intervention by a sender actor aimed at deliberate diffusion of an innovation; assessment, the analysis of information on past events and their definition as successes or failures, which leads to adaption of the innovation to new sites and situations; and theorization, the location of technical innovations within broader normative and cognitive frameworks.

As della Porta and Tarrow’s work shows, these dynamics are not unique to authoritarian regimes. Over at Plastic Manzikert, blogger Kelsey Atherton sees evidence of similar learning across police forces in their responses to Occupy encampments in the United States, and he thinks that learning helps explain why the movement has petered out.

What St. Louis did, more effectively and less violently than New York, was unoccupy it’s camp by taking advantage of protester exhaustion and finite capacity to respond. When one side plays nonviolent in the face of an aggressor, the contest becomes one of public perception. When the nonviolent protesters found themselves outmaneuvered by nonviolent police, there was no battle of public perception to be had. The violence and resistance of Zuccotti made for compelling media–unusual tactics, contended public space, seemingly out of proportion crackdown, and a clumsily aggressive handling of the situation made the action look brutal and the protesters come across more as heroic victims than the public menace the police needed them to be.

But without the violence, there isn’t that narrative. Polite, unthreatening police calmly restoring a public square in shirtsleeves de-escalate the scene, and manage to make protest the one thing it shouldn’t be: boring.

The global interplay of regimes and oppositions evident in all of these “cases” is a bit like a bunch of interconnected games of cat and mouse, all happening at the same time. Within each domain, each family of mice is busily trying to outwit its own cat, and each cat is  diligently trying to catch its own mice. All the while, though, the cats and the mice are learning from what happens everywhere else–sometimes just by watching, but other times by talking and conspiring and even lending a hand. Often that aid passes from mouse to mouse or cat to cat, but sometimes it’s the cat in one arena lending a hand to the mice in another, and vice versa. As communication and international organization get easier, the whole process only thickens and accelerates.

With this much interdependence at work, it’s no wonder we had such a hard time anticipating the Arab Spring (and the “color” revolutions that preceded it, and the collapse of communism that preceded it, and…). As social scientists, we can try to learn things from this latest wave that will help us anticipate where and when the next one will occur. As we do, though, we have to bear in mind that the potential agents of those future events will probably be learning and adapting and evolving even faster.

Why the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund Won’t Make a Difference

On Monday, the Obama administration released its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2013, which starts on 1 October 2012. Among the many tidbits buried in that document is a proposal to establish a new Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Incentive Fund, to be managed by the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). According to a State Dept. press release, the point of this new $770-million fund would be “to better position the United States to quickly respond to dramatic changes in the region and incentivize reforms.” More specifically, the MENA fund is intended to “incentivize [gack, I hate that word] long-term economic, political and trade reforms—key pillars of stability—by supporting governments that demonstrate a commitment to undergo meaningful change and empower their people.”

On its face, this fund strikes me as smart policy. Since the 1980s, the U.S. government’s efforts to promote democracy abroad have relied heavily on negative incentives–sticks rather than carrots. Democratic and Republican administrations alike have routinely sought to jawbone recalcitrant autocrats into adopting political and economic reforms and funded training for those autocrats’ domestic challengers.

As I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog, I don’t think these hostile approaches are very effective, and they may even be counterproductive. The appearance of an alliance between foreign powers and domestic opposition groups may goad authoritarian rulers into cracking down before that opposition grows powerful enough to pose a serious threat, and it can enhance domestic support for that crackdown by playing on nationalist concerns about foreign meddling. Foreign funding for “civil society” organizations and training  also draws local activists’ energy away from the difficult but crucial work of domestic organizing into the cyclical hunt for overseas grants and attention.

These problems haven’t stopped Western governments from trying, but they also haven’t stopped American policymakers from experimenting with positive incentives, or carrots, too. The single-biggest experiment along these lines is the Millennium Challenge Corporation, created on George W. Bush’s watch, but the proposal of this new MENA fund shows that interest in positive incentives was not unique to that administration.

The more I think about it, though, the more I doubt this MENA fund would have any effect on the odds that regimes in that region will attempt or sustain democracy. I see three major problems.

First, the proposed fund is awfully small. Even if it’s spread across just a handful of the many countries in the region, the proposed budget of $770 million would still represent no more than a few hundred million dollars per country. That’s not a whole lot of incentive to undertake or sustain reforms that will often have powerful domestic enemies in countries as large as Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia. To have much impact on those governments’ behavior, the fund would have to be big enough to make a real dent in the expected costs of democratization–and, equally important, to bear some resemblance to the expected rewards of sustaining or restoring authoritarian rule.

Second and related, the benefits of that assistance aren’t properly targeted. Specifically, the benefits of the foreign assistance the MENA Fund could offer would be public, while the benefits of sustaining or restoring authoritarian rule are often private, or at least spread across a much smaller pool of beneficiaries. Enticements work by motivating someone to do something. When it comes to political and economic reforms, the “someone” isn’t a country or its population; instead, it’s the small group of elite insiders who control–and benefit most from–the current institutional arrangements. Asking them to destroy those arrangements in exchange for new foreign assistance is kind of like offering a reward for tips leading to the capture of a local crime boss but insisting that the informants share the reward with everyone in the neighborhood. Stacked against the material benefits of keeping the old order going and the risks of ratting out the boss, one’s personal share of the public gain starts to look pretty meager.

Third, there are too many alternatives. Conditional rewards don’t work very well when the targets can get the same benefits somewhere else without the hassle of meeting the conditions. If the U.S. and the were the only source of badly needed foreign financing and assistance, conditional assistance might be more effective. In today’s world, though, governments in need of cash can often shop around for a better deal–from China, from Russia, from the Gulf monarchies, from regional development banks, from wealthy private investors, and so on. The availability of unconditional alternatives further dilutes the drawing power of these already-modest enticements.

If it gets established, the Incentive Fund will add some programs to the roster of U.S. activities in MENA countries “in transition,” and some of those transitions might succeed in producing durable democracies. My guess, though, is that the countries receiving this new assistance will be the ones that would have undertaken the relevant reforms anyway. The Incentive Fund will not transform any dictators into democrats, nor will it have a significant effect on the odds that new democracies in the region will survive.

Strong Evidence that Donors Use Development Assistance to (Try to) Influence Elections

Researchers have scrutinized foreign aid’s effects on poverty and growth, but anecdotal evidence suggests that donors often use aid for other ends. We test whether donors use bilateral aid to influence elections in developing countries. We find that recipient country administrations closely aligned with a donor receive more aid during election years, while those less aligned receive less. Consistent with our interpretation, this effect holds only in competitive elections, is absent in U.S. aid flows to non-government entities, and is driven by bilateral alignment rather than incumbent characteristics.

That’s the abstract from an important new paper by UC-San Diego economists Michael Faye and Paul Niehaus, forthcoming in American Economic Review. Technically, official development aid (ODA) is supposed to be about promoting economic development and improving popular welfare. Nevertheless, Faye and Niehaus show a strong link between election cycles and aid flows that fits what we would expect if aid were also being used for political ends. In cases where elections are competitive, donors crank up the aid to friendly governments facing tough elections while reducing aid to hostile ones. In cases where elections aren’t competitive, aid flows don’t vary much around elections (why bother, right?). Meanwhile, assistance to non-governmental organizations and opposition groups from the U.S.’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED) follows the same cycles, but the pattern is reversed (albeit not statistically significant): assistance to opposition groups goes down around election time in countries with friendlier governments, and it goes up around election time in countries with more hostile governments.

All in all, it’s a pretty compelling set of results that should put another big dent in the “development aid isn’t political” narrative.

Thanks to NYU’s Cyrus Samii for pointing this paper out on Twitter.

  • Author

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Follow Dart-Throwing Chimp on WordPress.com
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 13,613 other followers

  • Archives

%d bloggers like this: