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Promoting democracy

Responsible donor action required

by Barbara Mayrhofer

In brief

A police officer in Accra: Ghana's transition to democracy was supported by donors and is considered a success.

A police officer in Accra: Ghana's transition to democracy was supported by donors and is considered a success.

How aid and democracy inter-relate matters especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The region still depends on donor funding, and its democracies are mostly quite young. Donor governments can promote democratisation, as Danielle Resnick elaborates in a policy brief that was published by the UN University, but the challenges are not trivial.

Donors basically rely on two aid instruments, according to Resnick. They can withhold funds when they observe human rights violations or when a coup is staged. The second, more indirect approach is to tie aid to democratic reforms right from the start. Resnick regrets that donors do not always use their influence and too often practice restraint, for instance when the rights of homosexual people are violated. There are ways of promoting democracy directly, moreover, that do not depend on aid money. In such cases, non-governmental agencies, foundations that are close to political parties or state institutions from rich countries support political parties or interest groups in developing countries with money and expertise.

Aid and the promotion of democracy can be mutually reinforcing, the author states, but there may also be tensions. Democracy thrives on “vertical accountability” she argues, with citizens assessing their government's performance and then sanctioning it in elections. Civil society and free media are essential in this context. Resnick warns however, that non-transparency may result from donor governments cooperating closely with governments of developing countries (please note essay by Jacqueline Neumann on p. 462 ff.).

“Horizontal accountability” matters too and can also be affected by aid, Resnick warns. Horizontal accountability is about various state institutions keeping one another in check. However, donor agencies tend to restrict the role of a country's parliament in drafting policies and controlling public expenditures when they agree to subsidise the national budget of a developing country. This usually happens on the basis of a policy programme, that is negotiated only with the government concerned (“budget support”). Resnick points out that similar problems arise when donor agencies make deals with the line ministries of developing countries.

Resnick wants donors to think long term and to ensure the coherence of all measures. In her eyes, it is particularly important to promote political parties that are based on programmatic policies and not merely serve as campaign vehicles in elections. She argues that not only opposition parties should be supported, and that tensions with the parties in government should be avoided.  (bm)