Foreign Service Journal, February, 2001

The State Department and USAID often take different approaches to promoting democracy abroad. Can they work together?

Recently I was in Eastern Europe researching U.S. democracy assistance (I'll leave the country unnamed to respect the privacy of the interviewees mentioned here). Early in my trip I met with the USAID mission director, who gave me a rundown of the portfolio of U.S. aid projects aimed at advancing the country's attempted democratic transition. It was similar to what I have seen in many other countries - a mix of efforts to bolster independent media, encourage nongovernmental organizations involved in civic advocacy, advance judicial reform, strengthen local government, and other similar programs. The mission director stressed the long-term nature of their efforts, the need for caution and modest expectations, and the value of working outside the capital city at the grassroots level.

A day or two later in the same country I met with the U.S. ambassador and asked him to describe the U.S. government's approach to aiding democracy there. He quickly denigrated what USAID was doing, accusing USAID of being too interested in studies, assessments, and project plans and too enamored of NGOs and local level activity. What the U.S. government should focus on, he said, are key politicians with real influence. The embassy should send them on study tours to the United States to learn how democracy works and keep the pressure on them at pivotal junctures to make sure they do the right things politically, like not appointing weak or corrupt people to important posts. The U.S. government should also, he emphasized, make sure the political leaders "pull off" the next presidential election with some credibility. And to ensure a visible stamp of approval for that, the U.S. government should sponsor a high-level U.S. electoral delegation to those elections.

These contrasting points of view - variations of which I have heard in numerous countries over the years - showcase two distinct philosophies on how to aid democracy abroad that coexist uneasily within the U.S. government. On the one hand, in dozens of countries USAID underwrites technocratic democracy aid programs, such as efforts designed to improve the efficiency of judiciaries and legislatures or to get nongovernmental organizations to engage in more serious planning and organizational development. These activities are based on a model of democratization as a long-term developmental process consisting of the gradual reform of major state institutions matched by the slow building up of civil society, often with an emphasis on NGO development at the local level. This model is applied all around the world, in very different countries. In Guatemala for example, USAID has been working for 15 years to aid democracy by supporting the reform of the judiciary and the legislature while also trying to bolster the development of NGOs both in the capital and the countryside. In Russia, a country with an entirely different political background, USAID's democracy efforts have been basically similar. The long-term developmental nature of USAID's approach reflects the fact that its democracy programs originate from the same processes of strategic planning, assessment, and results management as do the more traditional types of U.S. foreign aid, such as public health work, agricultural development, or poverty reduction. The technocratic quality of the programs derives from USAID's continuing hesitancy about doing anything that appears to be too openly political, even in the very political domain of democracy building.

In contrast, many State Department officials who engage in democracy promotion, especially those posted abroad, work from very different instincts and impulses. They want action, not studies and assessments. They focus on politicians and political events, not on developmental processes. They want to concentrate on the here and now, not on long-term change. They are often skeptical about the importance of NGOs. They like to use visitor programs, high-level diplomatic visits, and election observer missions as strategic tools and do not shy away from emphasizing the American model of democracy. In Guatemala, for example, various U.S. ambassadors and State Department officers in the embassy have over the years emphasized jawboning of senior Guatemalan officials as the best way to get positive change on democracy and have often been skeptical about the value of NGO work and other long-term, less direct approaches. In Russia, State Department officials often interpreted democracy promotion as meaning specific support for specific political figures, above all, persistent efforts throughout the 1990s to bolster President Boris Yeltsin.

In some countries, due to particular personalities or circumstances, USAID and State manage to work effectively together on democracy aid, with visitor programs and political jawboning used to reinforce democracy aid programs aimed at different institutions or sectors. In Bulgaria, for example, cooperation across State and USAID lines on democracy promotion has worked well in recent years, with the ambassador fully on board with the USAID approach and State officials adding their own efforts. More often than not, however, the two agencies do not work so well together. USAID frequently ends up working by itself on democracy aid programs with State officials paying little attention to activities they regard as marginal. Or the two organizations work at cross-purposes, sending conflicting signals in the host country. For example, while USAID is stressing the importance of NGOs and local civic advocacy, State Department officials may be dismissing the significance of such groups in their meetings with high-level politicians.

State/USAID Differences

The philosophical differences between USAID and State on democracy aid are of course part of a larger divide. Despite the efforts of a few years back to integrate USAID more closely under State Department authority, the two organizations still live in fairly separate worlds. Some critics of USAID argue that USAID refuses to tailor its work closely enough to U.S. foreign policy goals. USAID officials counter that they have made an effort to align their strategic priorities with those of the State Department. They also believe that State does not have an exclusive say in what those goals are and that promoting long-term economic, social, and political development all around the world is very much part of America's mission.

Distinct subcultures separate the two organizations as does a regrettable accumulation of mutual dislike. In private, many State officials are prone to express disdain for an aid agency they see as hopelessly bureaucratic and ineffective. USAID officials in turn often view the department as the out-of-date preserve of diplomats interested in little more than "who's in-who's out" political analysis and their own career prospects.

It is tempting to downplay this split over democracy aid by portraying the approaches of USAID and State as complementary halves of a single whole. In fact, however, the two approaches are not mutually reinforcing and both are in need of some revision. State Department officials skeptical of, or uninterested in, democracy aid as practiced by USAID should recognize that using foreign assistance to promote democracy (as opposed to the more direct types of political action that State likes to engage in) has become a real field in the past 10 years, not just in America, but in many aid-giving countries, from Australia to Sweden, and in numerous international institutions as well. This growth of democracy aid does not mean that it is dramatically effective - modest expectations are appropriate - but it does indicate that it is much more than a passing enthusiasm of a few American idealists. Many early democracy aid programs were indeed embarrassingly simplistic and misguided. But those who implement these programs have learned a lot, and the field is growing in sophistication and accomplishment. USAID is certainly too bureaucratic and frustratingly slow in many instances. But State officials should not dismiss as wasted effort all studies, assessments, and evaluations that they see in the democracy field. Promoting democracy is usually a complex business, one that in many cases merits reflection and study before plunging in. And though a long-term approach can be an excuse for lack of focus, in many problematic democratic transitions, whether in Ukraine, Nigeria, Indonesia, or Nicaragua, anything other than a long-term focus is likely to be a recipe for failure.

At the same time, USAID officials must not retreat into a technocratic, specialized conception of democracy promotion, one that denies the basic fact that such work is inherently political. A focus on politicians and political junctures is inevitably a necessary part of such work. The nature of politics requires democracy programs to move quickly in some circumstances and to use old-fashioned political leverage to gain results. Although USAID can make a good argument for keeping near-exclusive control within the U.S. government for programs to promote social and economic development, in the democracy domain it must accept partnership with State.

Bridging the Gap

With a new team taking up positions at State and USAID, and continued bipartisan support in our political system for democracy promotion abroad, the opportunity exists for a constructive effort to bridge the gap between the two cultures of democracy aid. The United States can and should play a role in helping democratic transitions succeed in many parts of the world, especially in southeastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. It will do so more effectively if State and USAID understand each other better on this front and work toward a synthesis of approaches.

The challenge in this domain is to avoid a debate over approaches to democracy aid becoming merely a squabble over institutional arrangements. State and USAID must try not to fall into a tug-of-war over whether democracy aid (or all foreign aid) should be brought into the State Department and run out of expanded sections of the regional bureaus or from an enlarged global division. If it is framed as such, the issue will become merely a turf battle, fought on the lines of power, control, budgets, and personalities, like any other bureaucratic turf battle. It is important to recognize that the institutional arrangements for democracy programs do not necessarily determine whether the programs succeed or fail. Both good and bad democracy programs can come out of a USAID operating relatively separately from the State Department or from a State Department that has incorporated USAID. It is critical to work first toward a consensus on some fundamental elements of a good approach to democracy aid and then to move toward informed study of what institutional arrangements will most easily and effectively achieve them. I suggest the following basic points as building blocks of such a consensus.

No Place for Amateurs

First, institutional arrangements for democracy aid must be built on a recognition of the fact that this is a domain in which expertise is fast accumulating and the place for enthusiastic amateurs is shrinking. If the U.S. government wishes to continue to be in the business of sponsoring democracy programs, it will have to have a substantial in-house professional capacity to do so (unless more radical changes are considered, such as turning over the entire matter to some large new private or semi-private foundation - a complex subject of its own). USAID has developed such a capacity, albeit slowly, as real training for democracy work did not begin until 10 years after USAID began mounting such programs on a broad scale. The notion that State Department officers could simply tack on a few democracy aid duties to their existing work is misguided. If the State Department were to play a dominant role in democracy promotion, it would have to take substantial steps to develop the capacity to do such work, which would be no small task.

Second, to oversee the design, implementation, and evaluation of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of democracy aid projects, an extensive field presence is necessary. Attempting to run everything from Washington would be a mistake, despite whatever benefits such an approach would bring in terms of central direction or coordination. This fact implies that whether democracy aid is primarily a USAID or a State function, the U.S. embassy or aid mission in recipient countries should continue to have a major role in the process.

Third, creating institutional arrangements that allow real flexibility and adaptability for democracy programs is essential. Aid providers cannot assume that democratic transitions will unfold in predictable linear paths. Institutional arrangements must allow democracy promoters to set up or shut down their activities quickly, to substantially adjust them along the way, and to take risks. It is also unrealistic to assume that democracy can be broken down into quantifiable bits to fit numerically-based systems of evaluation of the sort that USAID has tried to use in recent years. Evaluation mechanisms, which are certainly necessary, must primarily utilize qualitative rather than quantitative information, preferably generated by genuinely independent evaluators, such as scholars and other research analysts. USAID has struggled to meet such imperatives but has often fallen short because democracy aid has been forced into the same bureaucratic structures as aid in traditional developmental sectors such as health and agriculture. The creation of the Office of Transition Initiatives in the mid-1990s at USAID was a step in the right direction; it established a mechanism somewhat outside USAID's traditional bureaucratic labyrinth that allowed for more flexible, rapid programming.

Needed: More Transparency

Fourth, democracy aid programs benefit from a diversity of actors. The temptation to call for greater order in the rather decentralized world of democracy aid is an understandable reflex but an incorrect one. USAID is sometimes criticized for the welter of organizations that carry out its programs, including non-profit democracy organizations, for-profit development contractors, educational institutions, and advocacy NGOs. There are certainly problems with the ways USAID chooses its partners: The biggest problem is that the organization's contracting processes often limit the bidding for larger projects to a small circle of organizations. Having many groups involved is a plus. These outside groups bring specialized skills in areas such as civic advocacy, media work, and political party development that the U.S. government itself inevitably lacks. They try different methods which can foster a spirit of healthy competition and experimentalism. The range of organizations involved in democracy promotion should be further increased by simplifying USAID's bidding procedures and avoiding the pattern of omnibus contracting arrangements that favor the few.

Fifth, although it is good to have many American groups taking part in the implementation of democracy programs, an effort should be made to increase the proportion of aid that goes directly to groups or persons in the recipient countries. Neither USAID nor State has a special advantage in this regard. Both have some experience in establishing direct grant mechanisms, experience that should be expanded upon.

Sixth, whether new institutional arrangements are developed or the existing ones preserved, it is crucial that U.S. aid providers be very open about the democracy work they do. Too often, USAID and State communicate poorly with the U.S. public as well as with people in the recipient countries about these efforts. This failing contributes to weak U.S. public support for democracy aid and considerable ignorance and suspicion about it in the places where it is carried out. Democracy aid must exemplify the same good-governance principles of transparency and accountability that it seeks to foster in other societies.

In sum, the right way forward is neither to continue with democracy aid as it is nor to hastily shift it all over to the State Department. There is a need for a serious review of existing approaches in this domain and a consensus-building exercise among State, USAID, other interested U.S. agencies, and the main democracy promotion NGOs, on the fundamental principles and methods of U.S. efforts in this domain. Then and only then should new institutional arrangements be considered or established. With hard work, the "tale of two cultures" in democracy aid can be brought to a close and a more coherent story begun.