As the field of international democracy assistance ages and to some extent matures, it is undergoing a process of diversification — in the actors involved, the range of countries where it operates, and the kinds of activities it comprises. Strategic differentiation is an important element of this diversification—democracy-aid providers are moving away from an early tendency to follow a one-size-fits-all strategy toward exploring varied strategies aimed at the increasingly diverse array of political contexts in the world. A defining feature of this process of differentiation is the emergence of two distinct overall approaches to assisting democracy: the political approach and the developmental approach.

The political approach proceeds from a relatively narrow conception of democracy—focused, above all, on elections and political liberties — and a view of democratization as a process of political struggle in which democrats work to gain the upper hand in society over nondemocrats. It directs aid at core political processes and institutions — especially elections, political parties, and politically oriented civil society groups — often at important conjunctural moments and with the hope of catalytic effects. The developmental approach rests on a broader notion of democracy, one that encompasses concerns about equality and justice and the concept of democratization as a slow, iterative process of change involving an interrelated set of political and socioeconomic developments. It favors democracy aid that pursues incremental, long-term change in a wide range of political and socioeconomic sectors, frequently emphasizing governance and the building of a well-functioning state.

This basic division between the political and developmental approaches has existed inchoately in the field of democracy support for many years.It has come into sharper relief during this decade, as democracy-aid providers face a world increasingly populated by countries not conforming to clear or coherent political transitional paths. Such a context impels greater attention to choices of strategy and method. Moreover, with the overall enterprise of democracy promotion now coming under stress—as evidenced by the growing backlash against both democracy promotion and democracy more generally—the democracy-aid community is more actively debating the relative merits of different approaches. Some adherents of the developmental approach criticize the political approach as too easily turning confrontational vis-`a-vis “host” governments and producing unhelpful counterreactions. Some adherents of the political approach, meanwhile, fault the developmental approach for being too vague and unassertive in a world where many leaders have learned to play a reform game with the international community, absorbing significant amounts of external political aid while avoiding genuine democratization..