From Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution at “The Problem(s) with U.S. Democracy Assistance” at Democracy Arsenal:
In any case, the whole idea of “democracy assistance” is a bit odd and more than a bit hypocritical. We fund autocracies with billions of dollars of aid, then we fund some small NGOs so that they can oppose autocracy. Talk about mixed messages. Often, “democracy assistance” does not in fact assist democracy, since much of it goes to authoritarian governments themselves to help them govern more effectively. And a good chunk of NGO assistance goes to NGOs that are effectively GONGOs – government organized non-governmental organizations. GONGOs, needless to say, have nothing to do with democracy promotion. Even the money that does go to well-meaning NGOs is focused less on specifically democratic concerns and, as the Arabist notes, more on things like women’s empowerment, minority rights, etc., which are all important, but are not necessarily clearly linked to democratization – the movement, among other things, toward a political structure in which “alternation of power” is possible.
Certainly the imperative for democracy promotion organizations like IRI is to “follow the money” — to support overhead and bureaucratic and political heft by morphing to try to undertake whatever tasks the US government has funding for–regardless of core competencies and mission. I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to say that the US “GONGOs” have “nothing to do with democracy promotion”, but any honest assessment does have to recognize the inherent contradictions. “GONGOs” do face inevitable occasions when those contradictions between democratic ideals and policy choices by some in key positions in the US government are not successfully managed–as in my experience at IRI in dealing with the U.S. Ambassador in regard to the last Kenyan election.