Revitalizing Democracy Assistance: The Challenge of USAID

Thomas Carothers Report October 27, 2009
USAID—the largest source of U.S. democracy assistance—requires deep-reaching reforms if the Obama administration hopes to adequately address challenges to democracy around the world.

Democracy is largely stagnant in the world and a growing number of governments exhibit hostility toward international democracy aid. Faced with this daunting context, President Obama and his foreign policy team have so far moved only cautiously to formulate an approach to democracy promotion. Tackling longstanding problems with the basic structures of U.S. democracy aid would boost this effort. As the largest source of such assistance, USAID is an obvious starting point for deep-reaching reforms.

Key Conclusions

  • With the Obama administration having launched major reviews of development policy, a critical juncture exists for substantial reforms of USAID and other key actors in U.S. democracy assistance, a domain that now consists of $2.5 billion a year of aid programs in more than 80 countries.
  • Although USAID has a long record of positive contributions to numerous democratic transitions, its accumulated institutional woes lead to democracy aid efforts that fall short due to lack of flexibility, stifled innovation, and lack of institutional commitment.
  • Fixing USAID’s shortcomings will require determined, focused leadership at USAID, with active support from Congress and the Obama administration. As Congress and the administration take up the larger overhaul of U.S. development policy generally, they should not neglect the domain of democracy and governance support. 


  • Fight bureaucratization: The crushing bureaucratization of USAID’s democracy and governance work must be reversed through a comprehensive series of reforms that simplify the procurement process, eliminate duplicative layers of oversight, reduce reporting requirements, and improve the evaluation process.
  • Bolster local ownership: USAID should build more flexible funding arrangements with its implementing partners that encourage genuine partnerships with local groups and increase direct funding to local organizations. 
  • Strengthen the place of democracy and governance work within USAID: Ensure that democracy and governance is fully supported as an institutional priority and is well-integrated into other areas of foreign assistance, through clear leadership commitment at the top and numerous steps at other levels, such as strengthening the Office of Democracy and Governance and following through on new training commitments. 

“A successful revitalization of USAID’s democracy and governance work would be a telling signal that the Obama administration is forging significant institutional changes that will help the United States meet the serious challenges that democracy’s uncertain global fortunes now pose.”

End of document

About the Democracy and Rule of Law Program

The Carnegie Democracy and Rule of Law Program rigorously examines the global state of democracy and the rule of law and international efforts to support their advance.


Publication Resources

In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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