During the past three decades, international assistance to support democracy and the larger, older domain of development aid have operated side-by-side in some hundred countries around the world. Yet their relationship with each other often has been uncertain and in flux. When democracy aid began playing a substantial role on the international stage in the 1980s, it did so at arm’s length from aid for socioeconomic development. Democracy promoters were ambivalent, even wary, about the methods and values underlying development aid, while the attitudes of developmentalists toward this new political-aid endeavor were sometimes even more strongly negative.

The separation began to narrow in the 1990s. Post–Cold War optimism about the apparent triumph of market economics and liberal democracy, as well as about the complementarity of these two goals, gave rise in Western policy circles to the view that an integrated approach to both political and economic development aid might be valuable as well as possible. This new context, as well as programmatic evolution within both communities, prompted democracy promoters to begin building bridges to the socioeconomic side and developmentalists to do the same toward the political.

Those bridges widened in the most recent decade as developmentalists embraced a general imperative of “taking politics into account,” while democracy promoters accepted the need to “help democracy deliver.” The distinctions between the two practitioner communities blurred, in terms of both organizational boundaries and the activities on the ground. The growing overlap and interconnections between democracy aid and socio- economic aid present an analytic puzzle of considerable practical import: Do the growing ties between the two domains constitute a process of integration or even synthesis? What are the most important areas of common ground and the most significant differences? And what are the effects on this ill-defined relationship of recent changes in the broader international context, such as democracy’s global woes and the heightened visibility of nondemocratic development success stories?

"The Elusive Synthesis" was published as part of a Democracy Support and Development Aid trio in the Journal of Democracy. Please also read the responses, "The Case for Principled Agnosticism" by Brian Levy and "Getting Convergence Right" by Kenneth Wollack and K. Scott Hubli.

This forum grew out of a workshop organized in April 2010 on democracy and development by the Bernard Schwartz Forum on Constructive Capitalism at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.