June 29, 2001

Reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Review

American democracy has been characterized from its inception by the intensity of direct citizen participation. Americans do not necessarily vote, but when it comes to trying to influence government policies that affect them, they are quick to organize and make their voices heard. This propensity was first noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in the mid- 19th century and has been confirmed innumerable times since then. Although fewer Americans participate in the mass membership organizations today than earlier in this century, as Robert Putnam has shown in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, there has been a sharp increase in the activism and visibility of other citizens' groups. This is documented in several studies in Civic Engagement and American Democracy, edited by Theda Skocpol and Morris Fiorina.

Now the United States is actively exporting the idea that citizen activism is the key to democracy, and private organizations like George Soros' Open Society Institute and European governments are joining in the effort. Civil society assistance receives a generous share of the more than $ 600 million the United States spends on democracy promotion programs in all parts of the world every year.

How successful has the effort been? Can donors' assistance revive civic activism stifled by years of authoritarian repression and change the relation between citizens and their governments? The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace undertook a project to answer some of these questions. The results, published in a volume of essays under the title Funding Virtue: Civil Society Assistance and Democracy Promotion, suggest a complex answer to this question.

Some outcomes of civil society assistance are clearly visible in all regions of the world. In country after country, the contributors to the Carnegie Endowment study found that hundreds or even thousands of pro-democracy non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been formed in a direct response to civil society assistance programs. In many countries, these NGOs were the first truly independent voluntary associations to emerge after decades of government control of all organized activity.

Donor-promoted NGOs fall into predictable categories in all countries. Some engage in civic education, teaching citizens about the general principles of democracy, the specific characteristics of their own country's political system, and the steps they can take personally to try to influence government decisions. Others monitor the human rights situation and report violations. Finally, advocacy NGOs directly lobby their governments on issues ranging from women's rights to environmental protection. Most of these organizations are organized along the lines of modern day American NGOs, relying on professional staffs rather than the volunteer efforts of their members. In fact, many of these new organizations could not function on the basis of members' activism, because they are quite small, with few or even no members. Financially, these NGOs depend almost completely on the donors.

The donors have succeeded in changing the organizational landscape of many countries. It is less clear whether they have also succeeded in stimulating the vibrant civil society that was their goal. Many of the NGOs created with the help of donor funding are poorly rooted in their own societies. Instead of being set up by groups of citizens organizing in defense of their rights or for the pursuit of a common goal, they are formed by enterprising individuals eager to tap into funding available from the donors. Would-be recipients quickly learn the preferences of the different funding organizations--the programs and ideas they favor, the language that is likely to attract their attention--and tailor their program accordingly. This is undoubtedly good grantsmanship, but it can also turn so-called civil society organizations into creatures of the donors. The impact of the donors is reflected in the sometime startling sameness in the activities they organize and the language they use across countries and even continents. When an NGO leader in Azerbaijan sounds exactly like the one interviewed a few months earlier in Uganda, the researcher cannot but wonder whether these groups are more interested in speaking to the donors than in speaking for their societies.

More recently, some civil society assistance programs have taken a different, and more radical, direction. Beginning in Slovakia in 1998, then in Croatia in 1999, and most importantly in Serbia in 2000, donors have deliberately funded civil society organizations as a means of getting rid of authoritarian incumbent leaders. So far, this approach has been limited to Eastern Europe and the Balkans, but the success encountered so far suggests that it will be followed elsewhere. This approach can be summarized briefly: donors help organize and fund NGOs whose purported aim is to "get out the vote" and monitor the fairness of the elections. Ostensibly nonpartisan, in reality these NGOs want to defeat the incumbent government. These NGOs have played an invaluable role: they have succeeded in increasing voters' turnout, particularly among those segments of the population most likely to oppose the incumbent, and they have provided independent estimates of election results, helping to keep the process honest. In Serbia, furthermore, the information was used with dramatic results to force President Slobodan Milosevic out of power: the most important donor-backed NGO, Otpor, publicized the data showing the victory of the opposition to bring the population into the streets, forcing the president to concede defeat.

This more radical form of civil society promotion raises questions about how far donors are entitled to meddle in the politics of a country in the name of democracy promotion. There are many unanswered questions here. There is no doubt, however, that the policy is based on a realistic understanding of democratization as a conflictual process in which strongly organized groups force the incumbent authoritarian leaders to give up power once the voters have spoken.

Assisting civil society in order to promote democracy is a more difficult endeavor than in seemed initially. There is still much to learn. The Carnegie study shows that it is easy and cheap to set up an NGO--a few thousand dollars suffice in most countries--but much more difficult to set up one that really speaks for a segment of the society. Creating NGOs is not the same thing as promoting a strong civil society. The study also concludes that countries at different phases of the process of democratization may need different forms of civil society organizations. All democratic and democratizing countries require a robust civil society, confident of its capacity to influence government policy. But a robust civil society has different manifestations, and a wealth of NGOs is no guarantee of strength. In some countries and in certain periods, civil society can be quite strong although NGOs do not exist. The intermediate associations that so impressed de Tocqueville were ad hoc citizens' groups, not professional NGOs, and so were the so-called "civics", the township organizations that played a central role in the struggle against South Africa's apartheid in the 1980s. At the other end of the spectrum, the numerous professional NGOs that donors support in Nepal have not succeeded in affecting the fundamentally authoritarian character of the regime. However, NGOs have contributed to giving ordinary Filipinos a greater voice in the political process of their country.

US and European donors focused on a fundamental issue when they concluded that democracy cannot survive without a strong civil society, that is, without citizens capable of organizing to make their demands heard and to force the government to take their interests into account. But the Carnegie study suggests that, in disbursing civil society assistance, donors often exclude important, vibrant players. They support American-style professional advocacy organizations, and, until recently, have paid little attention to social movements, professional and religious groups, and other organizations that may lie closer to the grassroots in many countries. It is important that donors learn to diversify their aid among the wider civil society; and tailor their programs to the nuances and subtleties of different democratization processes and political contexts. Finer-honed civil society aid will help ensure that the strengthening of civil society is an attainable policy goal, not wishful thinking.