Poor governance is linked to civil wars, corruption and a lack of economic development, among other grave problems. To its credit, the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy rightly warns that terrorists exploit “weak governance” and calls for using diplomacy and assistance to “improve governance.” My Brookings colleague Tamara Wittes has issued a similar call, noting that a sustainable and secure Middle East depends on improving governance. Governance problems not only plague countries torn by civil war—see Libya and Syria—but also supposedly more stable nations such as Algeria and Egypt.
But even if the U.S. had more expertise, many typical governance problems are political, not technical, Byman writes for Lawfare:
Corruption, for example, stems from more than just the greed of a local official. Rather, it often is a deliberate part of a political system: The regime pays off one set of elites to guarantee their support. In addition, important anti-corruption measures such as a free press and an impartial judicial system are a direct threat to authoritarian regimes, as these institutions will also hold regimes accountable for their abuses. Similarly, allowing locals influence over decisions affecting their communities seems uncontroversial but is a direct threat to any authoritarian system where decisions emanate from the top. So local regimes may try stop a USAID team or hinder a U.S.-backed local democracy activist. Indeed, every country has a tension between the power of the national government and that of localities. If the United States tries to give locals more power, national politicians may see this as a threat.
“Improving governance also requires patience and sustainable programs—not strong points of the United States,” he adds. “Reducing corruption, improving accountability and other goals often take years or even generations to succeed, and any programs must continue from administration to administration, with steady funding and political support.” RTWT
Byman’s analysis may ring true for government agencies, but arguably less so for non-governmental democracy assistance groups – including partners of the National Endowment for Democracy – addressing governance issues.