Lessons of Experience in International Democracy Support

Peter Burnell/ Dec 2011

The view that democracy can be good for development has held sway in influential international development policy circles for over two decades now. And over that time considerable efforts have been made internationally to give direct encouragement and support to moves towards democratic transitions and the building of democracy in many countries. Although a substantial number of countries have made progress towards democracy, the Arab world, in contrast, looked to be the one major region that was very resistant. It lagged behind politically as well as in respect of key indicators of economic and human development, with the exception of a few rich oil economies that remained firmly non-democratic. The belief of some political leaders in the West that a scenario of falling dominoes in the region would follow on as a consequence of the successful military overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq also seems to have been misguided.

Then early 2011 came the 'Arab Spring' in North Africa and the Middle East. Taking many seasoned political commentators by surprise, this phenomenon now challenges international democracy support to make a positive contribution going forward. That means learning from its own efforts to support democratization in various parts of the world in the past, and avoiding the repetition of past mistakes and, as now seems necessary, devising some new approaches and policy solutions. While offering an opportunity to help the peoples of the region make a successful transition to stable democracy, and thereby avert the harm that prolonged political uncertainty or flux could do to their prospects for improved development, the Arab Spring also gives international democracy support a chance to strengthen its own credentials.

In recent years democracy support has been on the defensive, in part due to contamination by external intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in part due to the rising power of China and Russia—countries that appear to show that strong economic performance and pro-poor development are very compatible with political systems sharply at odds with Western democracy. The political and economic messages that China’s experience in particular seems to send to countries across the developing world do not go unnoticed. However if Arab societies and international democracy support are both to benefit from closer engagement with one another in the months and years ahead, then the way that democracy support goes about trying to achieve its ends, what it does and how it does it must all heed the lessons of its own past performance generally and in this region specifically. The analysis in the Working Paper speaks in the first instance to democracy support’s involvement with the emerging trends in Tunisia and Egypt, for these two countries have been frontrunners in the Arab Spring. But the policy implications have much wider application to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East—post-Gadaffi Libya, for example—even though their individual circumstances, political as well as economic, are different.

Evaluating the performance of democracy support is intrinsically difficult. But its potential to help countries in the region move towards stable democracy is at best likely to be modest, even if it incorporates the lessons of experience and acts appropriately. The overriding judgment must be that domestic conditions, political as well as economic, will be the primary determinants of these countries’ political future. International factors certainly will be very important, but the impact of international democracy support will be minor compared to other and more major features of international geopolitics and geo-economics. If those more major features are negative then they could easily distort, undermine, or cancel out the benefits that democracy support might bring, directly or indirectly, to development in the broadest sense in the region. Of course, this is not a reason for not trying hard to get democracy support to the region right, now.

Peter Burnell is a Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies, The University of Warwick, UK.

This article is based on UNU-WIDER working paper no. 2011/84, 'Lessons of Experience in International Democracy Support: Implications for Supporting Democratic Change in North Africa'. It originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of the WIDERAngle newsletter.

Related Article: Aid in North Africa after the 'Arab Spring'