Aiding democratic progress in Africa faces an array of ongoing and emergent challenges, ranging from chronically weak state capacity to rising pressures in some parts of the continent from Islamist extremists. Significant progress in some countries stands alongside tragic failure in others. 

Drawing on their pathbreaking book Democratic Trajectories in Africa: Unravelling the Impact of Foreign Aid (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2013), Nicolas van de Walle and Danielle Resnick examined the record of using aid to promote democracy in Africa. Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers moderated.

Research Motivations

Resnick described the motivations behind the book and the authors’ approach to the subject of foreign aid and democracy support in Africa.

  • Critical Issues: A growing body of literature supports the claim that democracies spend more on social and economic welfare, and that aid providers increasingly recognize the relevance of democracy and governance issues.
  • Not Monolithic: Many studies of the topic aggregate all foreign aid together. The authors sought to disaggregate development aid from democracy aid, recognizing that the two communities have different ideas about the relationship of democracy to economic development.
  • A Variety of Cases: The authors examined cases of both transition and consolidation, including efforts to avoid democratic erosion and deepen democratic gains. 


Resnick discussed their findings after examining multiple case studies.

  • Complementary Aid: Development aid and democracy aid can play complementary roles; political and economic conditionality on aid can produce results.
  • Uneven Success: The structural effects of long-term aid can fail to rectify inequality, while short-term development aid is often used erratically. 
  • Vertical Accountability: Democracy aid is key to securing vertical accountability. Development aid, on the other hand, can indirectly reinforce incumbent advantages by helping leaders expand popular government programs during election years.
  • Civil Society vs. Party Support: Party strengthening has been marginalized within the democracy aid community. Instead, “demand side” support for civil society remains the focus.
  • Democratic Erosion: Democracy aid is crucial given Africa’s changing development landscape, but approaches to preventing democratic erosion are missing a sound theory of democratic change.

The Case of Mali

Van de Walle, who authored the book’s case study on Mali, discussed his findings and explored the question of whether foreign aid could have prevented the breakdown of democracy in Mali.

  • Derailment: After a period as an African democratic success story, Mali experienced a rebellion in the country’s north and a subsequent coup in 2012 that derailed its democracy.
  • Positive Impacts: The positive impacts of aid include sustained economic growth and the development of a zeitgeist in favor of democratic norms that encompassed broad societal support for democracy.
  • Aid Failures: However, aid failed to address structural impediments to democratic consolidation, including weak political institutions and horizontal accountability, a wide gap between elites and the masses, persistent north-south cleavages, and the urban bias of the country’s social policy.
  • Lessons Learned: Van de Walle stressed the need for donors to focus on the promotion of horizontal accountability and to pay greater attention to poverty alleviation as a component of democracy support.

The panelists agreed that, despite often being viewed as clearly distinct entities, development aid and democracy aid are closely interrelated, and the aid community has had a difficult time incorporating political objectives into the structure and implementation of development aid.

Danielle Resnick

Danielle Resnick is currently a research fellow on governance at the International Food Policy Research Institute and a former research fellow at the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki. Her research interests include Africa’s emerging middle class and foreign aid and democracy in Africa. She has conducted field work in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Senegal, and Zambia.

Nicolas van de Walle

Nicolas van de Walle is Maxwell M. Upson professor of government and chair in the Department of Government at Cornell University. He has published widely on democratization issues and the effectiveness of foreign aid, with a special concentration on Africa. He was director of the Einaudi Center for International Studies from 2004 to 2008.