Micro-Assistance to Democracy: Two Revolutions in Promoting Consolidation of Democracy in Developing Countries

Article excerpt


Despite acknowledging the need for nurturing democracy from within, democracy assistance programmes have often been carried out in a top-down fashion. By starting from the limits of democracy assistance, this article outlines the notion of micro-assistance to democracy, which can be defined as support to local civil society organisations operating at the most grassroots level, and establishes a comparison between micro-assistance to democracy and the case of micro-credit in anti-poverty policies. Both micro-credit and microassistance to democracy share the same understanding of development (the former economic, the latter political) as a bottom-up process. In cases of democratic consolidation where it is deemed to be a feasible and effective approach, micro-assistance to democracy encourages the deepening of democratic practices and vertical accountability and responsiveness. Acknowledging the potential of micro-assistance to democracy would bring about two revolutions in the way democracy assistance has been traditionally conceived of. The first revolution is a Copernican revolution, since democratic consolidation comes to be understood as a mainly bottom-up process, radically opposite to the more traditional top-down rationale of the last decade of democracy promotion policies. The second revolution regards how to measure democratic advancement. Arguing that democracy assistance can more effectively be assessed at the microlevel of local projects, this analysis maintains that micro-assistance to democracy provides international donors with more reliable information on the impact of democracy assistance programmes. Since microassistance to democracy produces a regression to local democratic development as the first source of knowledge, this second revolution might be seen as a Cartesian epistemological reconstruction.


Foreign actors have always influenced political changes in developing countries. During the Cold War, for instance, Western governments extensively promoted their political and economic interests in areas as various as Latin America, Africa and Asia, often by opposing democratically elected governments under the justification of countering the 'red danger' of quickly-spreading socialist ideals. Since 1990, with the apparent victory of liberal democracy over all possible alternatives, the promotion of democracy has become part of the foreign policy agenda of Western governments (Fukuyama, 1992; Diamond, 1992; Carothers, 1999). Not only did humanitarian interventions become common in several regions of the world, but international interference for promoting democracy and protecting human rights also came to be justified as duties of the international community.

As one of several democracy promotion policies, democracy assistance differentiates itself from other instruments since it understands consolidation of democracy as an internal process that cannot be forced from the outside. However, despite acknowledging the need for nurturing democracy from within, democracy assistance programmes have often been carried out in a top-down fashion.

Besides other intrinsic limits, this top-down approach has ultimately undermined the effectiveness of democracy assistance in most cases. Indeed, one of the challenges posed to many democratic consolidations stems from local democratic development: in practice this means that, despite that political elites have been socialised into the newly democratic regime, the majority of the population still lives under non-democratic power structures that resemble patrimonialism (O'Donnell, 1993; Mamdani, 1996). This element should also be regarded with concern when considered together with further problems such as the limited political responsiveness and accountability of representatives to the citizens, the high level of poverty that affects most of the population, and the difficulty of delivering policies due to poor institutional structures and scarce contact between the grassroots population and state institutions. …