Advancing democracy with frontline activists in difficult environments


When it comes to advancing democracy, autonomous organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy benefit from the organizational flexibility and political credibility that governments lack, says NED president Carl Gershman.

A member of the [Yale] class of 1965, Gershman was active in the Civil Rights Movement, working with one of its principal leaders, Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He led Social Democrats USA, which was closely aligned with the American labor movement, before serving as Senior Counselor to Jeane Kirkpatrick, the United States Representative to the United Nations.

“Even though I started on domestic issues in the 1970s, I quickly got involved in international human rights work and democracy support, rallying support for dissidents in the communist world and elsewhere,” he says in an interview with The Politic’s Adrianne Owings:

Even though the NED is largely funded by Congress, it is still a private, non-governmental organization, which, as the website claims, “allows it to work where there are no government to government relations and in other environments where it would be too complicated for the U.S. Government to work.” Could you give an example of when this fact has proved useful and what exactly prevented the U.S. government from being involved?

The main thing this allows us to do is pursue democracy in a focused and consistent way. The idea behind making the NED private is to disentangle it from all of the United States’ diplomatic relationships. For example, if we have a diplomatic relationship with a country like Egypt, the NED is not restricted because of that. We can operate outside of the framework of government and support democracy in countries that might be authoritarian, with which the United States has to work.

Obviously, what we do is transparent, it’s known, but it has that independence, which is important when supporting non-government organizations. We need to empower [the people in these countries] to achieve their own vision and not follow the particular policy of ours or any government. We’re flexible and exist outside of the bureaucracy that exists within government, meaning we can get things done quickly and nimbly. We don’t have offices in a lot of these countries, so you can imagine it sort of limits the way we can be controlled by or pressured by some of these governments.

“Our government has largely withdrawn from this kind of work, so more people are turning to the NED to do democracy work, especially in difficult countries where it’s beyond the reach of official institutions,” Gershman adds:

We’ve managed through that transition in the ’90s, and today I think people in Congress have a greater understanding of why this institution is needed and is consistent with American values. However, we can never be complacent, and we try to connect those in Congress with the activists we support, letting people know what we do. And I think people in the Congress really welcome meeting frontline democracy activists from China, Russia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, and the other places.

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