Last fall, Joshua Marks, a program officer from the National Endowment for Democracy, met with a group of community activists in a classroom in Abeche, a city in eastern Chad. Many of the activists had received small grants, ranging from roughly $200 to $5,000, to help in their efforts to foster civil liberties, political rights, and transparency in government. Yet democracy was not what they wanted to talk about on that day. "The main concern at the meeting," Marks says, "was 'How are we going to feed ourselves?'"
The local population had doubled over a three-year period, from 60,000 people to 120,000 people, as refugees from Darfur poured over the border in search of a peaceful haven. Many of the residents were going hungry, and the area was distressingly short on firewood, cooking oil, and maize. The activists in the classroom were anxious, even fearful. Marks decided it was not the right moment to steer the conversation back to good governance. Instead he spoke with the residents openly, allowing for an environment in which democracy would "grow organically." "I realized that if I'm going to be honest about my work, I have to recognize what they are saying," Marks says.
His experience reflects the larger conundrum of dozens of nongovernmental organizations and American nonprofits that help people around the world work toward free elections and representative governance. As Marks has discovered, developing a country's infrastructure and improving food security often take precedence over long-term goals of democracy-building.
In recent years, humanitarian aid has not been seen as closely linked with fostering democracy. Under the banner of "democracy promotion," former President George W. Bush marched toward war in Iraq and Afghanistan and portrayed elections as the only way of evaluating a country's progress. Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, under President Barack Obama "there's been a notable downplaying of democracy as a foreign-policy priority," says Michael Allen, who edits the newsletter Democracy Digest and also works for the National Endowment for Democracy.
The Obama administration is focusing on international efforts such as agricultural programs, women's rights, and economic development rather than on elections. It has also taken a more holistic approach to foreign policy, choosing to engage with nondemocratic regimes abroad in the hopes of finding some common ground. Democracy-promoting organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the Eurasia Foundation, and Freedom House are listening carefully--"Kremlin style," as one expert puts it--to the statements of Obama and his Cabinet members for signs that the administration considers democracy a priority. Most aren't liking what they've heard so far. When asked about Obama's approach to democracy promotion, many activists in the field sound like hurt and angry ex-boyfriends. "It's too early to talk about important changes in the Obama administration," one analyst says defensively.
"There is concern among activists that perhaps the administration sends the wrong signals to authoritarian regimes when it downplays democracy so much that it may be seen as neglected," Allen says.
In April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, saying, "The foreign policy of the United States is built on the three D's: defense, diplomacy, and development." To the dismay of democracy promoters, that other "D"--democracy--was not included. And when Obama referenced American foreign policy in his Inaugural Address, he said, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
"He did not say, 'to any democracy,'" says Steven Simon, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of The Next Attack. …