The Seven Ingredients: When Democracy Promotion Works

By Mendelson, Sarah E. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

The Seven Ingredients: When Democracy Promotion Works


Mendelson, Sarah E., Harvard International Review


The fall of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, like the ousting of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, will go down as the stuff of democracy promotion legend. As in any successful campaign, veterans were revered and the defeated grew bitter. Authoritarians everywhere foamed at the mouth. "There were democracy camps where the Serbs trained the Georgians!" snarled one Russian parliamentarian, perhaps made uneasy by headlines about the triumph of people power. Although such accounts heralded the victory of democracy, from the sidelines many democracy activists were secretly and silently puzzled. What did the Serb and Georgian activists do right? What are we doing wrong? What did Serbia and Georgia have going for them that, say, Russia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan do not?

Serbia and Georgia offer many lessons. When specific conditions come together, we see extraordinary outcomes. The international community has enormous control over some of these conditions, and very little over others. All of them, however, must be better understood if we are to see peaceful regime change and democracy promotion at its best.

Getting Supply and Demand Right

The success in Georgia reaffirmed the importance of matching local activists with like-minded international democracy trainers. A very specific form of regime change has emerged from this close match between local demand and international supply. But it is unusual. Democracy training--in election observation, in the nuts and bolts of campaigns--goes on all over the world, every day, and the sort of chemistry we saw in Serbia and Georgia rarely manifests itself.

I know from personal experience. In 2002 I helped bring some of the very same Serb activists who worked in Georgia to talk with human rights activists in Russia. Like in most trainings, however, the results were minimal. The Serbs, though funny, smart, and interesting, were not especially good trainers for what the Russians needed: basic training in strategic communication and public awareness campaigns. As they freely admit, they are gas on the fire only if it is already lit.

So before rushing Serb or Georgian activists to the next exotic locale, democracy promoters ought to think more about supply and demand. One solution is the establishment of an international training center that could match activists from around the world. Although Freedom House has attempted such cross-border work in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, this effort should be institutionalized and adequately subsidized.

The demand side is simpler. Public demand can be measured by large quantity, randomly sampled survey data, which allows donors to program dollars efficiently and helps activists on the ground speak effectively to the local population. Foreign assistance is commonly criticized as Western imperialism, driven by outsiders' interests. But when guided by survey data, assistance becomes fundamentally about responding to citizens. What do the people want? How can activists address citizens' interests? The Serb organization Otpor! did not manufacture resentment of Milosevic any more than the Georgian organization Kmara did of Shevardnadze in Georgia. They simply started listening and responding to the people.

Sufficient Assistance, Consistent US Policy

Democracy-promotion efforts in Georgia and Serbia were well-funded. In Serbia, estimates ranged from US$10 to $40 million over two years, and in the post-Soviet period, the United States might have spent more than a billion dollars on assistance in Georgia.

The good news is that the impact of democracy promotion is especially great in less populated countries such as Georgia and Serbia. The bad news, however, is that US foreign policy is often self-contradictory, rhetorically supporting democracy promotion in regions such as the Middle East while under-funding and ignoring assaults on democratic activists elsewhere, as in Central Asia and Russia. …

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