How Strong Is the U.S. Lever in Egypt?

To help understand the impact of international forces on post-Cold War transitions from authoritarian rule, political scientists Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way (pdf) draw a helpful distinction between linkage and leverage. In their terms, leverage is about authoritarian regimes’ vulnerability to external pressure, while linkage is about the density of a regime’s ties to the West. More specifically:

  • Leverage on transitional regimes depends on at least three factors: 1) a state’s raw strength, based on its size and military power; 2) the extent of competing issues on Western foreign-policy agendas; and 3) the availability to the target regime of alternative sources of political, economic, or military support.
  • Linkage comes in at least five flavors: economic, geopolitical (e.g., alliances and treaty regimes), social, communications, and transnational civil society (e.g., NGOs and religious groups).

Based on the transitional cases they studied, Steve and Lucan concluded that linkage and leverage both influenced the extent of democratization, but “mechanisms of leverage such as diplomatic pressure, political conditionality, and military intervention were by themselves rarely sufficient to democratize post–Cold War autocracies. Rather, the more subtle and diffuse effects of linkage contributed more consistently to democratization.”

I’ve been thinking about Steve and Lucan’s work over the past few days as I’ve followed the news from Egypt about raids on the offices of democracy and human-rights NGOs and the U.S. response to them. From BBC News this morning:

Egypt has reassured the US that it will stop raids on the offices of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the US state department says. Officials said property seized in the raids would be returned to the groups, which include two based in the US. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has spoken to Egypt’s military ruler by phone to discuss the issue, they added.

The raids in question happened a couple of days ago. Per the New York Times:

Security forces shut down three American-financed democracy-building groups and as many as six other nonprofit organizations on Thursday, in a crackdown that signaled a new low in relations between Washington and Egypt’s military rulers. Two of the organizations, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, had been formally authorized by the Egyptian government to monitor the parliamentary elections set to resume next week. Critics said the surprise raids contradicted the military’s pledge to hold a fair and transparent vote…The raids are the latest and most forceful effort yet by the country’s ruling generals to crack down on perceived sources of criticism amid rising calls from Egyptian politicians and protesters and some Western leaders for the military to hand over power to a civilian government.

In theory, the flap over these raids should be an easy test of U.S. leverage, and it now looks like a successful one. The test should be easy because the stakes for the Egyptian junta are relatively low. The groups in question just aren’t very powerful, and they’ve already accomplished a fair amount of what they set out to do in support of the ongoing parliamentary elections.*

The success of this intervention will probably embolden people, like Andrew Exum, who are calling on the U.S. to push more forcefully on this particular lever in hopes of ensuring that Egypt’s military junta makes way soon for a fairly elected civilian government. I agree that the U.S. should loudly voice its support for democracy in Egypt, but I doubt that more forceful nudges would greatly affect the direction of the current transition. Steve and Lucan’s research implies that even the long lever of Egypt’s dependency on U.S. aid–an average of $2 billion each year since 1979, most of it for the military, says Reuters–may not be a very effective tool of democratization. Egypt is a large and powerful state in a region where the U.S. has many competing issues on its agenda (oil and Israel, to name two). Under the circumstances, a threat to terminate U.S. aid just isn’t credible, and SCAF surely knows it. My guess is that the face-saving agreement to stop raiding NGO offices is about as far as this particular lever is going to get pushed.

Again, skepticism about the effects of this lever doesn’t mean the U.S. should leave it lying in the toolbox. It just means we shouldn’t be under any illusion that the U.S. can exert much control over the direction of Egypt’s transitional politics. The fulcrum of Egyptian politics sits within its borders, not on them, and it is that domestic balance of power that will ultimately determine which way this transition tips.

* A few days after I wrote this post, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the U.S. government-funded organizations in question, issued this helpful fact sheet on its presence programs in Egypt over the past several years.

Raising the Human-Rights Bar for Development Assistance…But Will It Make a Difference?

The U.S.’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has raised the bar for countries seeking its development-assistance grants in 2012 by adopting stricter standards for civil liberties and political rights. The intentions behind this change are clear and laudable, but larger weaknesses in the MCC program and the increased availability of unconditional aid from other sources lead me to expect that this change’s impact on political development in the targeted countries will be negligible.

For readers who aren’t aid wonks, some background is in order. The MCC is a U.S. government-funded but independently managed aid agency that aims to help its recipients reduce poverty by funding programs that are meant to boost economic growth. The MCC was established by President Bush in 2004, but it was the brain child of Stanford international-relations professor Stephen Krasner, who went on to serve as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff for part of Bush’s second term.

The big idea behind the MCC was to give poor countries stronger incentive to improve their economic and political governance by making a big, new pot of aid funding available, but making access to that pot conditional on countries’ performance on a basket of governance indicators. In theory, it’s like setting up a smoothie bar  in a high-school cafeteria and then telling the hungry students they’ll get free smoothies, but only if they’ve done well enough on their report cards. If they’re hungry enough (and like smoothies enough), anticipation of that reward should encourage them to improve their schoolwork, and everyone ends up better off for it.

To be eligible for MCC grants, countries a) have to be relatively poor (“low income” or “low middle income” in World Bank parlance, meaning they have an annual gross national income per capita less than $3,975); and b) have to satisfy a battery of selection criteria across three thematic groups: “economic freedom,” “investing in people,” and “ruling justly.” The MCC spells out its criteria in painstaking detail in an annual report, identifies candidate countries based on income, issues “report cards” on those countries’ governance practices, and then, finally, announces which countries have qualified for its assistance.

The big change announced by the MCC in 2011 for fiscal-year 2012 comes in the way it handles the “ruling justly” category. In the past, countries could qualify by scoring above the median on “controlling corruption” and any two of the five other indicators in that bin: political rights, civil liberties, voice and accountability, government effectiveness, and rule of law. Starting in fiscal-year 2012, however, countries have to score above a threshold on two of those six “ruling justly” indicators: still “controlling corruption,” but now either “political rights” and “civil liberties” as well.

This change is potentially significant. Of the six “ruling justly” indicators, only three are directly indicative of democratization: political rights, civil liberties, and voice and accountability. This meant that, under the old rules, highly undemocratic countries could qualify for MCC grants, as long as they were well administered relative to their low-income peers. Under the new rules, however, countries have to be at least moderately liberalized or democratized to get through the door. (For those of you who are familiar with the Freedom House political rights and civil liberties indices used to measure these dimensions, the minima for 2012 are 4s on both scales.)

To see what this rule change might mean in the real world, I poked around the MCC’s data in search of countries that would have cleared the “ruling justly” hurdle under the old system but fall short under the new one. Instead of trying to determine overall eligibility, which is pretty complicated and sometimes involves additional considerations, I just looked at the “ruling justly” category. This unofficial and possibly error-prone exercise identified the following four countries as ones that would have made the old cut but fail to make the new one:

  • Djibouti
  • Ethiopia
  • Rwanda
  • Vietnam

That list nicely reflects the intentions behind the 2012 rule change. I know little about Djibouti, but Rwanda and Vietnam readily spring to mind as countries that often get lauded for their technocratic performance in spite of their clear failings on human rights and democracy. I would have guessed Ethiopia was more of a mixed bag, but it just barely tops the peer-group thresholds for “control of corruption” and “rule of law” while easily clearing the bar on “government effectiveness.”

Of course, the big question is whether or not MCC’s scoring change will actually help motivate the governments of those four countries to initiate political reforms they otherwise would not have taken. On that count, I’m hopeful but pessimistic. Seven years after its creation, the MCC isn’t having the transformative effects its designers intended, and that pattern isn’t likely to change any time soon.

The basic problem is that the MCC’s pot of money is too small to have the kind of “transformative” effect on the vast political economy of aid that its creators intended.  In part, that’s a function of supply. As originally envisioned, the MCC’s Millennium Challenge Account was supposed to have an annual budget of $5 billion. In fact, the budget has hovered closer to $1 billion per year, thanks to smaller requests from the presidents and smaller allocations from Congress. Given the current state of the federal government’s finances and the domestic politics of foreign aid, it’s hard to imagine that budget growing much larger in the next several years.

Budget woes aside, any transformative effect the MCC might have is also impeded by limited demand. Poor countries seeking development assistance have other options, and most of those other options don’t come with political strings attached. Faced with the choice between adopting political reforms that might threaten their grip on power in order to pursue a modest-sized grant from the MCC or seeking assistance elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine many authoritarian rulers opting for the former. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when the U.S. and Europe were pretty much the only game in town for development assistance, the MCC’s conditional offers might have been more tempting. In recent years, though, rapid growth in foreign assistance from China in particular has expanded the pool of available funds, thereby diluting the power of the MCC’s medicine.

In sum, while I applaud the MCC for making this change, I doubt it will make much difference. They’re trying to do the right thing, but it’s hard to move the world with a short lever and a shaky fulcrum.

The Importance of Thinking Statistically

In his enjoyable and accessible book, Numbers Rule Your World, statistician and blogger Kaiser Fung talks a lot about the value of “thinking statistically.” I was reminded of this point twice in the past 24 hours in ways that illustrate some common traps in our causal reasoning and, more generally, the difficulties of designing useful research.

First, I starting my Monday morning with a deeply disturbing but also annoying article in the New York Times, about a Tennessee pastor and his wife whose self-published book advocates corporal punishment as a basic part of child-rearing. The article was really a trend story in two parts. First, the article notes the book’s commercial success, which is linked to a wider resurgence in the use of corporal punishment in America. “More than 670,000 copies of the Pearls’ self-published book are in circulation,” we’re told, “and it is especially popular among Christian home-schoolers.” The real news hook, however, came from the second supposed trend: the deaths of three horribly abused kids in families that had been exposed to the Pearls’ teachings. “Debate over the Pearls’ teachings…gained new intensity after the death of a third child, all allegedly at the hands of parents who kept the Pearls’ book, To Train Up a Child, in their homes.”

The stories of extreme child abuse and neglect are the disturbing part of the article, and they are hard to read. Even so, the “data scientist” in me still managed to get annoyed by the insinuation that the Pearls are partly responsible for the three killings the article describes. The article’s author doesn’t flat-out blame the Pearls for the deaths of those three children, but he certainly entertains the idea.

In my view, this is a classic case of inference by anecdote. We see what looks like a cluster of related events (the three deaths); in looking at those events, we see exposure to a common factor that’s plausibly related to them (the Pearls’ book); and so we deduce that the factor caused or at least contributed to the events’ occurrence. The logic is the same as Michelle Bachmann’s absurd reasoning about vaccine safety: I met someone who said her daughter got vaccinated and suffered harm soon after; therefore vaccines are harmful, and parents should consider not using them.

Maybe the Pearls’ teachings do increase the risk of child abuse. To see if that’s true, though, we would need a lot more information. What the three deaths give us is a start on the numerator on one side of a comparison of rates of deadly child abuse among parents who have been exposed to the Pearls’ teachings and parents who have not.

Can we fill in any of those other blanks? Well, the advocacy group Childhelp tells us that more than 1,800 children die each year in the United States from child abuse and neglect (5 per day times 365 days), and the CIA Factbook says there are more than 60 million children under 14 in the U.S. That works out to an annual death rate about 0.003% (1,800 divided by 60 million). Meanwhile, the New York Times story tells us that the Pearls’ book is now in 670,000 households. If we assume that there are an average of two children in each of those households, that works out to 1.34 million kids in “exposed” families. For the risk to kids in those exposed families to be higher than the risks kids face in the general population, we would need to see more than 40 deaths from child abuse and neglect each year in that group of 1.34 million. To be confident that the difference wasn’t occurring by chance, we would need to see many more than 40 deaths from child abuse each year in that group.

Given the national rate of deaths from child abuse and neglect, it’s highly unlikely that the three killings discussed in the Times story are the only ones that have occurred in households with the Pearls’ book. Even so, once we widen our view beyond that “cluster” of three deaths and try to engage in a little comparison, it should become clear that we really don’t know whether or not the Pearls’ book is putting kids at increased risk of fatal abuse, and it’s arguably irresponsible to imply that it is on the basis of those three deaths alone.

The second time my statistical alarm went off in the past 24 hours was during a conversation on Twitter about the effectiveness of U.S. government support for pro-democracy movements in countries under authoritarian rule. As I’ve articulated elsewhere on this blog (see here and here, for example), I’m skeptical of the claim that U.S. support is required to help activists catalyze democratization and believe that it can sometimes even hurt that cause. That claim got me in a debate of sorts with Catherine Fitzpatrick, a human-rights activist who strongly believes U.S. support for democracy movements in other countries is morally and practically necessary. To rebut my argument, she challenged me to find “a carefully calibrated US-hands-off [movement] that succeeded in the world against a deadly authoritarian regime.”

She’s right that there aren’t many. The problem with reaching a conclusion from that fact alone, though, is that there aren’t many authoritarian regimes in which the U.S. government hasn’t provided some support for pro-democracy advocates. To infer something about the effects of U.S. democracy-promoting activity, we need to compare cases where the U.S. got involved with ones where it didn’t, and there are very few cases in the latter set. In experimental-design terms, we’ve got a large test group and a tiny control group.

Making the inferential job even tougher, countries aren’t randomly assigned to those two groups. I’m not privy to the conversations where these decisions are made, but I presume the U.S. government prefers to support movements in cases where it believes those efforts will be more effective. If those judgments are better than chance, then there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to the observation my Twitter debater made. This is what statisticians call a selection effect. The fact that democratization rarely occurs in the small set of cases where the U.S. does not publicly promote it (North Korea comes to mind) may simply be telling us that U.S. government is capable of recognizing situations where its efforts are almost certain to be wasted and acts accordingly.

I could go on about the difficulties of designing research on the effects of U.S. democracy-promotion efforts, but I’ll save that for another day. The big idea behind this post is that causal inference depends on careful comparisons. In the case of the New York Times story, we’re lured to infer from three deaths that the Pearls’ teachings put children at risk without considering how those kids might have fared had their parents never seen the Pearls’ book. In the case of my Twitter conversation, I’m told to understand that aggressive U.S. assistance to pro-democracy advocates makes democratization happen without considering how those advocates would have fared without U.S. help. In drawing attention to the need for thinking comparatively, I’m not claiming to have disproved those hypotheses. I’m just saying that we can’t tell without more information and, in so doing, inviting the authors of those hypotheses–and us all–to dig a little deeper before forming strong beliefs.

“[adverb] Free and Fair”

News stories about recent balloting in several African countries are reminding me how media coverage of elections in regimes with uncertain democratic credentials often reads like a mash-up of dueling press releases. From one direction, we get the top-line assessment of international election observation missions (EOMs), usually in the form of the phrase “[adverb] free and fair,” where the adverb, when attached, manages to sound a hopeful note without offering a full endorsement. From another direction, we hear complaints and criticisms lodged by losing candidates and domestic watchdog groups.

The results can be puzzling, because the assessments from those two camps often don’t match. Take this opening line from a Voice of America story on presidential elections held in October 2011 in Cameroon, a country with a regime widely regarded as authoritarian:

International observers have given authorities in Cameroon a passing mark after monitoring the October 9 presidential election amid widespread opposition allegations of fraud, organizational lapses and elevated voter abstentions.

Or this snippet from a recent CNN.com story on this month’s presidential election in Liberia:

The U.S.-based Carter Center said Thursday that the balloting was “was peaceful, orderly, and remarkably transparent.” The center’s election observation mission has been in Liberia since September 1, at the invitation of the [National Election Commission]. However, [opposition party spokesman] Tweah cited reports of ballot stuffing and discrepancies in the numbers.

If the international observers’ summary statements sound like dodges or spin, that’s because they often are. The goals of these reports are not only to describe and assess the balloting but also to discourage political crisis and encourage future improvements. In other words, they are political and diplomatic exercises as much as they are forensic ones.

Nowhere is EOM’s dual-purpose nature clearer than in the Handbook for European Union Election Observation. On page 14, the handbook makes like a forensic tool, stating that, “EU observers assess an election process in terms of compliance with international standards for elections.” Seven pages later, however, the handbook says this:

The conduct of an election can be influenced by a range of contextual factors. In circumstances where international standards have not been reached, or where national law or international best practice has not been followed, an EU EOM will consider whether there are mitigating or aggravating factors, thus placing those circumstances into context…Both mitigating and aggravating factors will be considered carefully when an EU EOM assesses any failure to meet international standards.

Some of the reasons observers might tilt their assessments in a more positive direction have little to do with the actual conduct of the election at hand. The full table of mitigating and aggravating factors can be found on page 21 of the EU handbook, but the fact that an election might be judged more favorably because it was a “post-conflict or first multiparty election,” the country has “poor infrastructure,” or the election took place in a “peaceful atmosphere” makes clear that this is not a strict standards-based exercise. Instead, countries are graded on a variety of curves, and these curves make it really difficult to extract basic information about election quality from the observers’ assessments.

At a time when even the largest international news organizations can barely afford to keep bureaus open in some regions, it’s understandable that journalists lean heavily on these press-ready summaries when describing a process as large and complex as a national election. Even so, the frustrating results of this chain of  imperfect information are stories that tell us little about the state of democracy in the country in question beyond the obvious fact that it remains uncertain. The currency of the phrase “free and fair” has become so badly devalued as to tell us next to nothing about the politics to which it’s applied. As consumers of these stories, we should understand what we’re getting and why.

“Magic Democracy Words” Don’t Tie Their Speaker’s Hands

In an August 30 piece for BBC News, Shashank Joshi, a graduate student at Harvard University and associate fellow at a major U.K. think tank, argued that strong statements from American officials about Syrian president Assad’s loss of legitimacy would help advance the Syrian revolution by committing the U.S. to stronger courses of action. Joshi writes (emphasis added):

The Syrian revolution of 2011 could also have been one more of those many abortive uprisings whose blood flecks the history of the modern Middle East, yet could not change its course. Things are no longer so clear. The outside world is slowly getting its act together. The US finally issued its “magic democracy words” (a term coined by US Middle East scholar Marc Lynch) and called for President Assad to go. No-one expects that the words will wound themselves, but they tie American hands and thereby force the machinery of US foreign policy to churn out fresh ways of hounding Damascus.

This isn’t the only place I’ve seen it said that sharp pronouncements from American officials about a foreign leader’s right to rule or the need for regime change “tie American hands.” This might sound nit-picky, but that phrasing’s not quite right, and it makes a difference for how effective we might expect those “magic words” to be.

The language about hand-tying comes from game theory. In multiplayer games, each player’s course of action often depends, in part, on its expectations about what other players will choose to do. This interactive aspect of the game means that one player can influence the others’ choices by committing him or herself to following or eschewing a specific course of action. For that commitment to be credible, it has to be visible (or audible) to the other players. More important here, it also has to be something its maker can’t undo, or, if he or she can undo it, something that would obviously be costlier to undo than to follow.

A classic example of hand-tying comes from the game of chicken. Imagine a contest with two cars hurtling toward each other. If the cars smash into each other, both drivers lose badly. If both cars swerve, neither driver wins, and they both look a little cowardly. The only way to win the game is to hold the course longer than the other guy. To scare your rival into swerving first, you might commit yourself to holding course by, say, visibly locking the steering wheel into a fixed position. (To see this idea in action, watch Kevin Bacon on a tractor. Technically, that’s foot-tying, but you get the point.)

Credible commitments differ from weaker forms of signaling. Signals don’t foreclose any courses of action; instead, they affect other players’ beliefs about what course of action the signal’s issuer will choose. Game theory tells us that signals should have a weaker effect on other players’ actions than credible commitments do. They don’t lop any branches off the game tree; they just modify receivers’ beliefs about which branch of the tree they are probably heading down.

“Magic democracy words” are not credible commitments; they are signals. They are audible, but they neither lock in nor foreclose any specific policy options. After saying that a ruler like Assad must go, the U.S. government might do more to make that happen, but it can also do nothing, and it can even work to support that ruler’s continuation in office. Whichever path it chooses, it can also change course at any time. Doing so might somehow diminish America’s reputation, but the costs of a diminished reputation must be balanced against all kinds of other interests, many of which will probably weigh more heavily than ephemeral concerns about consistency and likeability. International relations is replete with flip-flops, hypocrisy, and duplicity, so it’s hard to imagine many situations in which reputational concerns would compel a government to pursue a course of action that was otherwise judged to be counter to its national interest.

To my mind, magic democracy words are more like trash-talking than hand-tying. They might get players and fans a little hot under the collar, but they don’t really tell us much about the action to come. Smart players and coaches will ignore the jawboning and will look for their signals in the play that follows instead.

Can Really Poor Countries Hold Fair and Inclusive Elections?

This week, electoral officials and diplomats in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) told the Associated Press (link) that elections scheduled for late November will probably be delayed because electoral hardware ordered from abroad is taking longer to get there than they’d expected. At the same time, the cost of those elections is apparently ballooning. A revised budget estimate pegged the cost of the November election at $700 million and the cost of the larger election cycle, including local balloting in 2012, at $1.2 billion. Using 2010 data from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (link), that comes to about $18 per capita, a remarkable one-tenth of the country’s per capita gross national income of $180.

This story had me contemplating a question that’s occurred to me when reading election observer reports from other “developing nations”: can really poor countries hold fair and inclusive elections? At their core, elections are technical undertakings, a massive array of organizational and logistical tasks involving interdependent procedures and lots of hardware. These tasks are hard enough to pull off under the best of circumstances. When budgets are small, infrastructure is poor, populations are scattered, literacy rates are low, and voters’ health is impaired, the challenge increases exponentially.

Importantly, those challenges are not evenly distributed. Urban centers are likely to have an easier time executing elections than rural provinces. Better-connected rural provinces may produce higher turnout rates than their more isolated counterparts. Voting is often suppressed in areas beset by criminal or civil violence.

These irregularities in the distribution of electoral challenges can shape electoral outcomes. Each vote cast is (hopefully) counted the same, but the probability of casting a ballot is not equivalent across voters. And that’s before the political shenanigans kick in.

International donors often try to help poor countries plug these gaps with money and expertise. As DRC’s current situation shows, though, the costs involved can be tremendous, and even large budgets can’t overcome all of the challenges involved. In 2006, international donors provided 90 percent of the $500 million DRC spent on its elections that year (source), and that balloting still suffered from serious logistical problems (see here and here).

I’m not suggesting that poor countries should forgo elections. The process is often expensive and messy, but it’s still preferable to the alternative of government by self-appointed rulers. Mostly, I hope the authors of electoral laws and procedures in poor countries will try to design systems that take these challenges into account. For example, why not hold presidential elections in one round instead of two, avoiding the costs and logistical problems of organizing runoffs?

As it happens, DRC made this very switch earlier this year (link). The move has been decried by some observers as an effort by the incumbent president to ensure his own re-election, but the government explained the change as a cost-saving measure.  “Economically, it is obvious that the best interests of the Congolese people lies in the pattern of an electoral system that is the least expensive,” Information Minister Lambert Mende Omalanga said. “We are a poor country, a country in debt, a country under reconstruction, and a country that is fragile, we need to share the meager resources we have among all the people’s needs.”

The opposition’s concerns are legitimate. As the Congo Siasa blog explained in January (link), against a fragmented opposition, a single-round vote greatly increases President Kabila’s chances for re-election. Still, I imagine these concerns might be mitigated if DRC (and other countries holding single-round presidential elections) used an “instant runoff” system, or IRV. As IRV advocacy group FairVote explains on their web site (link),

With IRV voters get one vote and one ballot, but get to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins with a first-choice majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their supporters’ second choices are distributed to the remaining candidates in an “instant runoff.” The process of elimination and redistribution continues until one candidate has a majority.

My point here isn’t to advocate specifically for IRV or to wade deeply into Congolese election politics, a topic about which I know comparatively little. Instead, I hope DRC’s situation helps illustrate the exceptional challenges of organizing elections in poor countries, and the ways that electoral procedures can be adapted to try to mitigate these challenges. Not every country can afford every electoral system, and these financial and logistical difficulties ought to be a big part of the rule-making conversation in cases where they loom large.

How to Make Electoral Assistance More Effective

Several of my recent posts have harped on the limits and potentially counterproductive consequences of democracy-promotion aid (see here and here) and Western state-building efforts in Afghanistan (here). Today, while we’re all pulling our hair out over the debt-ceiling death spiral, I thought I’d offer something more positive.

Electoral assistance is one area where I think international democracy-promotion efforts can be most effective and carry fewer downsides, but there are lots of different ways to do it. A 2006 report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) makes some well-informed recommendations on how to do it right. One of those recommendations encourages donors to put institution-building ahead of logistical support for individual electoral events (with emphasis in the original text, which can be found here):

The international community has often been keen to provide support to elections during the last 15 years, and many positive contributions have resulted. However, donors have sometimes tended to provide assistance to elections because they have an easily identifi able and measurable outcome, provide high visibility, are politically attractive and are easy to justify to their domestic constituents. This means that elections are too often supported as isolated events…It has increasingly been realized that...the building of a strong and stable electoral administration capacity is a better long-term investment than ad hoc contributions to electoral events.

Improved election administration can reduce the risk of a democratic breakdown in a couple of ways. First, better election administration should make it harder for the ruling president or party to rig the system in their own favor by manipulating election procedures or outcomes. Second, by making it harder for incumbents to cheat, effective administration can also assuage the opposition’s and the military’s fears about the prospect of an incumbent “coup.” That fear is a serious concern because it can propel the opposition or the military to attempt preemptive coups or rebellions of their own. (These arguments are developed more fully on pp. 137-141 of my book on democratic breakdown.)

The idea that the capacity and design of election administration can improve prospects for democracy’s survival is supported by the limited amount of empirical research on this subject to date. In one relevant study from 1999 (pdf), Robert Pastor examined 50 “transitional” elections in “developing” countries during the period 1985-1994 and found a strong association between the presence of an independent electoral commission (EC) and the quality of those elections. Of 23 elections that “failed,” only three were overseen by independent commissions. Of the 23 that “succeeded,” all were overseen by ECs, of which 12 were fully independent and 11 partially independent. Based on this evidence, Pastor concluded (p. 18) that “the absence of independent ECs is likely to lead to ‘flawed’ elections, but the establishment of independent ECs is not sufficient to assure successful elections.” In another relevant study from 2007 (link), Sarah Birch analyzed the impact of election management bodies (EMBs) in 24 new democracies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and found that the design of an EMB affects the level of electoral corruption much more than its nominal independence does. This is hardly enough evidence to declare an “iron law” of democracy promotion, but it is at least encouraging that empirical analysis so far supports deductive reasoning and common sense.

Egypt Bucks the System

On July 20, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced that it would not invite international election observers to monitor the country’s upcoming parliamentary balloting, now scheduled for November (link). Egyptian and international human-rights advocates promptly expressed their surprise and dismay. “This is a very terrible development,” Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies director Bahey El Din Hassan told Kristen Chick of the Pan-African News Wire (link). His institute was one of several which signed a statement decrying the new law as “blatant interference” in the work of the country’s electoral commission, interference that “raises doubts about the integrity of the election process” (link).

This decision surprised many people hoping for democracy in Egypt because it is highly unusual. As Yale political scientist Susan Hyde demonstrates in her excellent book The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma (link), since the end of the Cold War, the idea that foreign election observation missions (EOMs) are an crucial enabler of free and fair elections has hardened into a widely shared international norm. As a result, only a very small share of elections in recent years have gone off without international observers present.

The decision alarmed many people because they believe the norm is rooted in sound practice. When I emailed Susan Hyde to ask for her thoughts on the SCAF decision, she wrote that the presence of international EOMs “can deter certain types of shenanigans, and their criticism (if it is warranted), packs a much bigger punch at the international level…The general reason for the norm, in my view, is that observers can increase information about the quality of the process for both domestic and international audiences.”

I was surprised by the decision, but I was not entirely dismayed. I agree with Susan that EOMs can improve the quality of elections, but I also believe they are neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve that outcome. The problem is that EOMs are neither as effective nor as impartial as we often imagine. They usually involve a small number of people who arrive close to election day and can only cover a tiny portion of the country. For political and diplomatic reasons, their top-line judgments–the only part of their analysis most of us ever will see or hear–often gloss over apparent flaws or abuses documented in their own reports. As one veteran of these missions bluntly put it to me in an email exchange about the SCAF decision, “International observers are truly full of shit. They come late, leave early, don’t know anything, and the method they use is crap. And that’s [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights], who is the best…Also international observers give a BS judgement, they say ‘flawed’ or ‘sort of flawed’ or ‘a step forward but there were concerns’ or crap like that that nobody cares about.” (To be fair, I suspect that Susan and many other advocates of international election observation would acknowledge some truths in those criticisms; see this essay of Hyde’s in Foreign Affairs, co-authored with Duke University’s Judith Kelley.)

I also think we make a mistake when we focus narrowly on how the rejection of foreign election monitors relates to international expectations. Seen through that lens, the decision has been widely interpreted as a signal that the SCAF has something to hide. My exposure to Egyptian political discourse is extremely limited, but from what I’ve read and heard, I get the impression that the decision was genuinely driven, at least in part, by nationalist pride. Among the many impulses driving the 2011 revolution is a desire for greater autonomy from the foreign forces that long endorsed and materially supported the Mubarak regime. This desire was on clear display in a recent episode of Al Jazeera English’s The Cafe, in which Egyptian activists and intellectuals from various camps discussed the future of Egypt’s international relations (link). Seen in that light, international election observation missions might reasonably be construed as part of the Western imperialism many Egyptians are trying to throw off. In fact, this is how SCAF has explained itself. “We have nothing to hide,” Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen told reporters (link); “we reject anything that affects our sovereignty.” That the SCAF felt like it could reject this particular norm may be telling us more about the decline of U.S. and European influence in Egypt than it does about SCAF’s intentions for electoral skullduggery.

Last but not least, I’m optimistic that the absence of foreign observers does not necessarily lower the odds that Egypt’s revolution will produce a democratic national government. While I agree with critics of SCAF’s decision that international observers would probably help improve the quality of the upcoming elections, I also see the possibility of a silver lining. The hopeful part of my mind says that the absence of international observers should strengthen incentives for domestic groups to mobilize their own election observation activities. If Egyptians respond to that incentive, this mobilization could help to catalyze the organization or expansion of domestic advocacy groups and the emergence of new political parties that Egypt will need to develop a durable democratic regime. The optimal path would involve effective international and domestic observers, but if I had to choose between the two as an engine of democratic development, I would pick the home-grown version every time.

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.

Frederick Douglass on…Democracy Promotion?!

A list published last week by the Guardian of the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time inspired me to pull Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass off the shelf in our living room and give it a read. (You can find the complete text of Douglass’ 1845 autobiography online here.) After blogging recently about certain U.S. government efforts to promote democratization in other countries (link), I was struck by this passage from Chapter XI:

I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upperground railroad. I honor those good men and women for their noble daring, and applaud them for willingly subjecting themselves to bloody persecution, by openly avowing their participation in the escape of slaves. I, however, can see very little good resulting from such a course, either to themselves or the slaves escaping; while, upon the other hand, I see and feel assured that those open declarations are a positive evil to the slaves remaining, who are seeking to escape. They do nothing towards enlightening the slave, whilst they do much towards enlightening the master. They stimulate him to greater watchfulness, and enhance his power to capture his slave. We owe something to the slave south of the line as well as to those north of it; and in aiding the latter on their way to freedom, we should be careful to do nothing which would be likely to hinder the former from escaping from slavery. I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey. Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him; and let him feel that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an invisible agency. Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother.

I have no idea what Mr. Douglass would think of international democracy-promotion efforts and don’t mean to imply that he would have shared my view of the aforementioned programs. I do, however, think that the “strategic logic” he describes gets at an important aspect of the problem that I touched upon in my earlier post.

Here’s the thing: If you’re not in a position to deliver freedom en masse, then anything you do that draws attention to your intentions and tactics stands to hurt your efforts by putting the agents of oppression on the defensive and telling them what to guard against. If the U.S. government really wants to help catalyze liberal activism in authoritarian regimes, it probably shouldn’t shout from the rooftops about its desire for regime change and then jabber on about the ways it’s going to try to make that change happen. Because the United States is a (sometimes lovably, sometimes maddeningly) loud-mouthed democracy with a relatively transparent government, the talking isn’t going to stop any time soon. If that’s right, then the United States’ ability to support democratization without provoking a counterproductive backlash is inherently limited, and U.S. policy-makers would do well to keep those limitations in mind. As Mr. Douglass said, “Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother.”

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