The 7 deadly sins of donor-driven democracy promotion

A man waves a white flag with the word, “peace” written in Arabic and English during the Bahraini revolution in 2011. There are many NGOs that promote and support democratization, but what do they do? Photo by: Al Jazeera English / CC BY

Over the past decades, the aid industry has increasingly converged around the view that democracy and “good governance” matter for development. Accordingly, donors often fund local nongovernmental organizations in the “global south” to promote and support democratization. Thousands of such NGOs worldwide are now educating voters, demanding accountability, reviewing legislation, combating corruption, strengthening the role of the media and advocating for more democratic and inclusive political, social and economic systems.

Many of these organizations do excellent work. (My personal favorite is Transparency International Georgia, a watchdog organization that excels on all fronts: watching, barking and biting.) The successes of such effective groups are widely discussed within the aid industry, and they are the only type of local NGO that citizens and taxpayers in donor nations ever get to hear about.

In contrast, the majority of pro-democracy groups fly completely under the public radar. Even in the countries where they work, only foreign donor officials and aid industry employees are familiar with their names. Local journalists don’t even know they exist. Decision-makers ignore them. And ordinary citizens couldn’t care less about what they do.

So what do they do? The short answer: not much, and even less that is of consequence. The long answer is best summarized in the form of “seven deadly sins.”

1. Mindlessly bumbling along.

My favorite question to people working for NGOs is always: If someone gave your organization $1 million with no strings attached, what would you spend it on to make the greatest positive difference?

Often, the answer is a confused silence, followed by some vague murmurings about doing more of whatever the organization happens to be doing at the moment. Many senior employees are so  conditioned to deliver whatever donors demand in their detailed calls for proposals that they have long since stopped thinking about possible local solutions to local problems themselves.

Funders: If your NGO partners cannot answer the above question, don’t give them any money.

2. Trailing donors down the road to nowhere.

Such lack of direction by local NGOs is especially toxic because following the paths trodden by donors rarely leads to democracy.

For example, the United States clearly does not want Bahrain to become a democracy. Nevertheless, the State Department ostensibly continues to support reforms there, proving a wonderful example of how you can spend fistfuls of dollars on “democracy promotion” without incurring any risk of real change on the ground.

Based on the National Democratic Institute’s activities in Bahrain, here are three things that donors can safely finance without having to worry that they may contribute to actual democratization:

      ● Hosting “discussions on the implications of and opportunities in the reform measures introduced by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa” (I’m not making this up).

      ● “Strengthening the role of youth” (whatever that means).

      ● Engaging in “interactive trainings on communication skills” (ditto).

To expand the list above, add whatever democracy promotion activities the U.S. Agency for International Development has been funding in Egypt over the past 30 years or so.

At times, donors really do want to promote real and fundamental change. For example, most donors genuinely wanted to promote greater democracy in Georgia in 2003, and donor-funded NGOs played a very valuable role in preparing the ground for change. But the real spearhead — and a key catalyst — of the Rose Revolution was a student movement trained in peaceful revolutionary action.

Activists: Becoming habituated to donor-driven approaches will leave you unable to take action if and when a window of opportunity for real change opens up. In fact, donors may offer to bankroll you just to draw your claws and keep your governments safe.

3. Rotating around roundtables.

Anyone who has spent too much time living in NGO-land runs danger of losing touch with reality thanks to a never-ending series of workshops and roundtables where the same people discuss the same issues again and again, and generally agree with each other a lot.

Civil society may be important, but it is not half as important as it thinks it is. Arguably, for the immediate well-being of a nation’s citizens, it’s less important than the construction industry or the banking sector. These players may have a lot to contribute to discussions about good governance and legal reforms, but when was the last time a real estate developer or bank executive was spotted at an NGO roundtable?

Aid experts: The next time you draw up a list of “key performance indicators,” include the line “% of interactions that were with people not like us.”

4. Refusing to speak with “them.”

Incidentally, the category of “people not like us” also includes “them.” You know, the ones “from the village.” The ones who do not follow parliamentary debates, read policy papers, sign online petitions or attend NGO meetings (unless free lunch is provided). Speaking with them is considered unnecessary as they “do not understand” political issues and are assumed not to care about such complex things. They don’t have postgraduate degrees in nonprofit management and social enterprise from Harvard University.

Then, every four years or so (if the ruler permits it), they go and vote for the same corrupt and undemocratic politicians all over again. See how ignorant they are? Damn them.

Note that this arrangement is comfortable for all protagonists. Donors ensure that the chorus of NGO voices faithfully sings from the hymn sheets of its foreign funders rather than voicing possibly uncomfortable views of ordinary citizens. (Ever heard of an NGO roundtable that concluded that political Islam was a good idea?) Meanwhile, NGO staff can spend their time sitting in air-conditioned offices rather than walking around dirty bazaars.

And the government is happy too. Why? Because as long as those pesky Western-educated fifth columnists do not listen to ordinary people, those people will not listen to what the NGO folk are saying either.

NGOs: Remember that fundamental change won’t happen because of “us.” If it happens, it will happen because of “them.”

5. Being boring and unimaginative.

Seasoned democracy NGO veterans (including this author) have typically been so brainwashed by rotating around repetitive roundtables and reading tedious donor PDFs that all imagination has drained out of them. Whatever the problem, the solution must include a roundtable, “strengthening the role of youth,” and a report. That’s a pity, because a bit of imagination can go a long way.

Take the case of Mounir Agznay, aka the “Targuist Sniper.” One sunny day, the young Moroccan climbed a hillside near his village, secretly filmed policemen soliciting bribes from drivers and uploaded the grainy amateur footage onto YouTube. The result? He sparked a national debate about corruption, several police officers were fired and the government itself started secretly filming traffic cops to curb such shake-downs of motorists.

A Moroccan policeman soliciting bribe from a motorist. The footage filmed by Mounir Agznay sparked a national debate about corruption.

When is the last time 2 million people watched something produced by a USAID grantee?

Funders: Launch a call for proposals that explicitly bars applicants from employing any standard NGO approaches or activities. No round tables, no reports, no “discussions on the implications of.” You never know, someone might have an idea.

6. Thinking like a bureaucrat.

So there you are in your NGO office, boxed in by cynical Western policymakers, risk-averse donor agency bureaucrats and a corrupt and oppressive government that is tapping your phone and forever threatening to close down your brother-in-law’s dental practice. All of these players have one thing in common: They don’t want you to rock the boat and make big waves.

And now you receive the donor agency’s latest call for proposals, inviting local NGOs to submit ideas for anti-corruption projects. If you think like a typical NGO administrator, you’ll probably see three options.

Option 1: You investigate high-level corruption, publish your findings and spend time in jail for “incitement to suicide.”

Option 2: You decide not to bid for the project, close down your NGO and start driving a taxi 12 hours a day for a fraction of your NGO salary.

Option 3: You find a bureaucratic solution. You organize a series of “civil society roundtables on the implications of and opportunities in the revision process of the draft public procurement bill.” Then you write a report that nobody will ever read, and maybe print some brochures, too.

The bureaucratic solution ensures that everybody has a pleasant time: the donor, yourself, your staff — even the government and your brother-in-law are happy! The only downside is that the project will do absolutely nothing to curb corruption.

In such a situation, thinking politically can open up new avenues. For example, maybe you cannot touch the issue of “ghost teachers” because the powerful Minister for Education makes millions a month from pocketing their salaries. However, you may be able to effectively address small-scale extortion of parents by individual teachers if those bribes do not flow further up the chain. Result: Poor families’ lives improve, the minister can take credit for a no-cost improvement in public services, and if a truly reform-minded government ever takes over, there’s a successful national example of an effective anti-corruption intervention that can be adapted for other sectors, too.

NGOs: Democracy is not a bureaucratic process, it’s a political process.

Not a sin: Being lazy.

Another form of thinking politically is to take the money, quickly tick the donor’s boxes and then roll up the sleeves for the real work. A very politically astute local NGO boss once explained to me that “we do projects just so we have the money to do the really important stuff” — on the side, that is. However, this approach only works if NGO managers and staff are genuinely committed to their work (rather than just to their salaries) and have a work ethic that propels them along the extra mile.

Fortunately, tens of thousands of studies conducted by international development experts have consistently not identified laziness as a factor affecting the performance or impact of donor-financed programs and projects. True, NGO staff and the people they work with nearly always lack capacity and therefore forever require more donor-funded training. But until very recently at least, nobody lazy was ever spotted on the radar of the aid industry.

And that’s great news for democracy promotion. Because if there were lazy people in our industry, they could make an incredibly easy living mindlessly bumbling along and trailing donors down the road to nowhere, rotating around the occasional canapé-laden round table along the way. They could pleasantly sail through their working days, ineffectually shuffling paper in nice offices, and would never have to interact with disagreeable people, let alone deliver tangible results.

Rest assured: To date, nobody has ever spotted the L-word in any aid industry publication or report, so it’s clearly not a factor.

Thus, allow me to apologize for the misleading title of this blog. There are only six deadly sins of donor-driven democracy promotion, and laziness is definitely not one of them.

What do you think? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Till bruckner

    Till Bruckner

    Till Bruckner is the founder of TranspariMED, an initiative that works to end evidence distortion in medicine, and manages advocacy for Transparify, an initiative promoting transparency and integrity in policy research. In his previous life, he worked in international development, occupying both field and research roles. Till is interested in the hidden power relationships that structure global politics and our everyday lives, and in finding new ways of using research and advocacy to make the world a better place. Till holds a Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Bristol, U.K.