This recommendation for the creation of a democracy assistance “watchdog” organization is where I have ended up from my own experience as an election observer and a volunteer trainer. And especially my role as a “sentimentalist whistleblower” from my time as “East Africa Resident Director” for the International Republican Institute with the failed 2007 Kenyan election.
I recently had the chance to visit with a wise American friend from my Kenya time who is of the persuasion that we, the United States, we would be better advised on balance not to try “democracy promotion” and to step back from being entangled in foreign politics. My accumulated years of watching democracy assistance in addition to my own search to understand what has happened in Kenya in spite of my best efforts force me to take this view seriously in a way that I would not have some years ago. Nonetheless, I am still in a “different place”and have an alternative suggestion. (When my friend stated that she would rather we spent the money on educating children I had to concede that would be better, but we have been around long enough to know that would not happen.)
Admittedly I have not been objective. This goes to the “sentimentalist” aspect of my speaking out about what went wrong on my watch in Kenya in 2007-08 and what I saw going wrong in 2013. Even though losing or limiting valued personal friendships was inevitable as a result of being a dissenter and agreeing to speak on the record to The New York Times about what happened I did it because I felt obligated and I have continued to feel affection for my former colleagues. Nonetheless, having been briefly an insider and otherwise around the democracy assistance community does give me a basis to continue to believe that most of the people involved in democracy assistance are relatively sincere and would prefer to accomplish more for the intended beneficiaries of the assistance.
Beyond that, the reality is that we are going to continue to do democracy assistance anyway. The question is just whether we want to get better at it or not.
Democracy assistance has solid bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats in Congress whether or not the base voters of either party are persuaded conceptually. Yet we observe by consensus that we are in a period of global “democratic recession” suggesting that what we have been doing may be suboptimal. People outside Washington generally do not have time and other resources to be engaged unless they are either participants (and thus beneficiaries) of the system or ideologically engaged to a degree that inhibits having a place at the table in Washington.
One of the problems is the inability to develop the learning and community of practice that would be available if there was greater transparency. Transparency is not really in the immediate short term interests of implementing organizations like IRI, NDI and IFES which for perfectly natural reasons would rather stay out of the line of fire from beneficiary critics of donor policies and just find it easier, like any of us, not to have anyone looking over their shoulder.
It is clear to me that the values behind “open government” would be most compelling in the area of democracy assistance itself. Donor taxpayers and intended beneficiaries of democracy assistance ought to see what they are paying for, and intended to receive respectively. The practice of informal secrecy creates opportunities for incumbent host governments to manipulate and divert programming. Informal secrecy also creates opportunities to avoid scrutiny of irregular interference in democracy programming by donor diplomats or others who may have competing objectives. [The essence of my experience as I summarized in “The Debacle of 2007″ for The Elephant.]
Meanwhile donor funds are available to tell positive, promotional stories as part of the donors’ general public diplomacy efforts even if the stories may gloss over the grittier realities that would need to be dealt with to actually improve an aspiring democracy– whether just to burnish images or to serve “stability” by avoiding angering voters who might be upset to know more about how their leaders are conducting themselves.
Existing watchdog organizations do not seem well equipped to work on foreign democracy assistance–partly because they have so many seemingly bigger fish to fry. In an era of “permanent war”, massive defense budgets and big expenditures in health and other programs and huge, growing deficits, democracy promotion programs are going to continue to be below the radar and outside the ordinary bandwidth of most groups like the Project on Government Oversight that do much of the best oversight in other areas. Related limitations apply for public interest journalism.
The Inspector General function is available to deal with certain specific wrongdoing within USAID programs and can deal with things like theft of funds from implementing organizations but a watchdog outside government could help all of us learn whether we are really doing the right things with our resources to help democratic development. While the USAID investigation process of my complaints regarding my experience in Kenya at least generated the informal confirmation of my concerns there was no remedy offered nor public reporting. Realistically democracy assistance gets into messy political questions that can only be addressed candidly in the first instance from outside of government.
There is new attention in Washington to “competing” with China in East Africa. In the bigger picture we have entangled our own economy deeply with China’s for too many years to simply change our minds now so our relationship with China will be nuanced. We do see that China has moved in a more rather than less authoritarian direction in recent years and that the Communist Party of China is doing more to directly collaborate with like minded ruling parties as we see with Jubilee in Kenya.
If we care about democracy in the long term the size of China as a power committed enough to its own authoritarianism to work to suppress its own expatriates and manipulate news coverage in Africa is concerning even if it does not succeed in propagating the CPC model.
But we do not need to be reactive: let’s do what we do better instead of playing catch up on their terms if competition with China is a motivator. It is the ballot box, not Bechtel Corporation (as an example) that gives the United States a comparative advantage over China. To mutually share the opportunities of democracy effectively, we need to generate more transparency and better oversight for our democracy assistance.