Time for realism on building new democracies?


What has gone wrong with the dream of democracy’s transformational potential? What stands out is a generalized disillusionment with the ability of democracy to provide public goods, the key functions that people expect of their governments, argues Alina Rocha Menocal, a research fellow at the London-based Overseas Development Institute:

While state capacity remains persistently weak, especially in new or emerging democracies, more and more citizens expect better services and enhanced ability to respond to their needs and demands, she writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:

As our recent research here at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) shows, people tend to value political freedoms and democracy mostly in instrumental terms: How well do democracies perform? Do they successfully provide expected levels of economic growth, health care, or education? The inability of many democracies to “deliver the goods” has put them under considerable strain.

In the current period of global turmoil, support for democracy abroad may seem a misplaced priority, if not a luxury we cannot afford, says a leading democracy advocate. But the tepid approach we take now is shortsighted, Freedom House’s Daniel Calingaert writes for The Hill blog:

Democracy support deserves a strong emphasis in U.S. foreign policy, because it serves U.S. interests, extends U.S. influence in the world and strengthens our ties to people abroad who share our values.

Our greatest adversaries are authoritarian regimes, which instigate or exacerbate regional conflicts, increase the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation, defend the perpetrators of mass atrocities, launch cyber-attacks on American institutions, allow large-scale theft of U.S. intellectual property or otherwise thwart U.S. foreign policy goals….

Support for democracy abroad is intensely challenging and rarely pays off in the short term. It may not seem worthwhile, particularly at times of democratic setbacks, as in the Middle East today. But the challenge of supporting democracy is insufficient reason to let up.


Democratic processes have opened up new opportunities for participation and the alternation of power, while also showing that they can deliver, in countries as diverse as Brazil, Ghana, and, most recently, Tunisia, Menocal suggests:

Citizens now have significantly higher expectations, and even in the Middle East this is likely to entail more responsive systems over the long term. The pull of China may be strong, but its model too conceals deeper problems, with profound inequality being merely one of many.

Yet the triumph of democracy is far from assured. Higher expectations are difficult to satisfy. Clientelistic systems continue or can even intensify in newly democratic systems where accountability and checks and balances remain weak.


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