Can Sociology Help Democracy Assistance Programs?

Programs that encourage democracy in foreign countries have become controversial, in part because of problems in how they have been implemented. Sociological research has the potential to make them more effective.

What Is Democracy Assistance?

“Democracy assistance” provides countries undergoing a transition from authoritarian rule with financial support, training, advice, and monitoring designed to shore up a range of institutions and practices associated with democracy. Specific programs seek to ensure competitive and free elections, strengthen the rule of law, improve governance by national and local political institutions, and build robust civil societies. Toward the latter objective they may foster independent mass media, cultivate norms that support human rights, and support non-governmental organizations. To accomplish these aims, donor governments often channel funds to local organizations that implement specific projects, such as monitoring elections for compliance to international standards, training judges and police, encouraging women to run for office, or running a campaign to promote awareness of free speech rights. The projects are evaluated via assessments of outside observers (e.g., reports by election monitors or measures of democratic performance by an agency like Freedom House) or quantitative indicators of success (e.g., the number of women actually elected to office or the number of participants in free speech awareness event).

Brief History

Beginning in the 1980s, the United States government significantly ramped up efforts to promote democratic institutions in countries that had recently emerged from authoritarian rule or showed signs of doing so. No doubt, one impetus was the Cold War. Democracy assistance received a boost in the late 1980s, a period featuring the demise of Soviet communism and the fall of dictators in countries from Africa to Asia and Latin America. Liberal democracy appeared established as the optimal political system, vindicating the efforts of the U.S. and its allies to spread democratic institutions around the globe. According to a 2015 Journal of Democracy article by Thomas Carothers, a leading authority on democracy assistance, total annual spending on these programs grew from less than $1 billion in the late 1980s to more than $10 billion today. The U.S. remains the single largest funding source: a 2017 report from the Congressional Research Service states that the investment peaked at about $3.4 billion in 2010, and has stayed above $2 billion per year through 2017, when it was roughly $2.4 billion. The European Union, the United Nations, individual European countries, and the developed democracies of East Asia and Oceania also invest sizable amounts in democracy assistance.

An Uncertain Future

Despite their popularity, democracy assistance programs have faced criticism from the start. Some think it is a fool’s errand for the U.S. to try to install its own institutions in foreign countries; one which wastes money that could be better spent on tax cuts or domestic programs. Others see democracy assistance as a deceptive façade masking expansionist ambitions, a front for giving multinational corporations access to the natural resources and markets of the developing world. Economic reformers who see the development of markets in positive terms often portray democracy promotion as a distraction or even an impediment, because democratic mobilization can block the types of austerity measures that they believe are necessary.

Democracy advocates have ready responses to these criticisms. Democracies rarely, if ever, start wars with other democracies, making a case for spreading democracy on both national security and economic grounds—after all, military conflict is vastly more expensive than democracy assistance. Democratic political institutions may facilitate incorporation into the global capitalist system (e.g., by protecting the property rights of foreign investors), but economic and technological forces have made global economic integration inevitable, and democratic institutions offer a peaceful way for populations affected by economic globalization to protect their interests and values. Many aspects of democracy offer tangible improvements to people’s well-being—for example, by making local government both more effective and more responsive to local needs.

Still, developments since the 2000s have given more ammunition to critics of democracy assistance. Prominent democracy promotion efforts have foundered. Vast resources poured into Russia and other former communist countries failed to prevent major backsliding toward autocracy. Since the mid-2000s, at least half of U.S.-sourced funds have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial hints of progress quickly devolved into violent strife and civil conflict. Even the optimism associated with the “Arab Spring” movements in the Middle East proved fleeting. Authoritarian leaders have more actively resisted efforts to promote democracy, branding them as foreign government interference imposing alien values and institutions for nefarious purposes. These autocrats use such arguments to justify measures restricting foreign funding of domestic NGOs, which over one quarter of low- and middle-income countries imposed between 1993 and 2012 (per Kendra Dupuy, James Ron, and Aseem Prakash, writing in the journal World Development). Others have since followed suit.

The impact of limited successes and a backlash from authoritarian leaders has been amplified by critiques of how democracy assistance programs often operate. As democracy assistance grew in scale, bureaucratic processes such as competition between and within donor agencies for funding, emphasis on rapid and measurable results at the expense of long-term investments, excessive focus on assessing outcomes and accounting for funds, and a proliferation of rules and regulations came to thwart the effective use of resources. Local NGOs began to focus on what Sarah Sunn Bush has called, in The Taming of Democracy Assistance, “tame” goals that, while not threatening autocrats, failed to meaningfully advance the democratic cause.

A “one size fits all” tendency to use the same techniques and programs in widely varying contexts undermines the success of many efforts before they even begin. Top-down programming leads to activities determined by the priorities, agendas, and theories of the donor organizations and the democracy assistance professionals who staff them rather than by local needs. This approach can create small, privileged coteries of local elites who monopolize funding, often because they speak the language—literally and figuratively—of democracy assistance bureaucrats, not because they operate more effectively in the local context or have a better rapport with local constituencies. Others in the field are alienated, resenting their exclusion from the inner circle of favored activists.

A Role for Sociology?

That is where good sociology can help. Sociologists are adept at collecting both qualitative and quantitative data in specific settings. This data could provide information about local needs, the constellation of stakeholders who need to be brought on board for a project to work, and the larger cultural and discursive setting—with its elements of solidarity and contention—that can make some practices and tactics more likely to succeed, others to fail. Sociology’s entire methodological toolkit, from interviews to focus groups, ethnographic methods, surveys, discourse analysis, and even archival research, can be mobilized to identify both opportunities for successful interventions and warning signs about possible obstacles. In one example, James Ron and David Crow reported in 2015 that their sociological surveys in Mexico, India, Morocco, and Columbia showed that many common negative portrayals of human rights activists by their opponents have little resonance with the publics in these countries, and specific groups of citizens are more likely to sympathize with them—groups that, naturally, activists in these countries would do well to attempt to reach.

Sociology’s openness to diverse theoretical perspectives and its substantive focus on group processes, the interplay between institutions and norms, and conflicts within societies also position its practitioners to produce research improving the effectiveness of democracy promotion efforts. Political scientists excel in the study of political elites and government institutions, but have less to say about processes in society. Economists develop behavioral theories based on core assumptions about rational action, but these theories may not fit well in specific cultural contexts. And Anthropologists provide “thick” localized descriptions of specific sites, but often their work lacks the larger theoretical perspective and the methodological underpinnings (such as surveys) for generalizing findings to regional and national contexts that are essential for policy relevance. Sociology combines many of the strengths of these disciplines while retaining a breadth of analytical focus, theoretical perspective, and methodological rigor that can overcome many of their weaknesses.

Most countries have established or incipient sociology communities that should be enlisted as active collaborators in the process of conducting empirically-based sociological assessments of needs and obstacles, identifying reasonable program objectives, designing and pilot-testing programs, and evaluating results using a variety of tools. Sociologists can work in tandem with social marketing professionals to implement context-sensitive campaigns that build demand for democracy (see, for example, my 2007 article with Sarah E. Mendelson in Post-Soviet Affairs). They can deploy their skills in research design to formulate appropriate evaluation tools to measure the impact of specific democracy promotion programs, as an alternative to much-criticized “top down” evaluations. Some major democracy assistance organizations have moved in this direction, supporting the type of in-depth, context-specific sociological research with the potential to make democracy aid more effective (Carothers, Emilie M. Haftner-Burton, Ron, and Mendelson have all provided detailed examples). But such research needs to be integrated as an essential component in the design of democracy aid programs.

Doing so may require some movement on the part of the discipline of sociology, including turning more attention to societies beyond the U.S. and the EU. Sociologists should place more value than they currently do on descriptive (though theoretically informed) studies that have potential policy relevance and on cultivating an applied subfield geared toward the craft of studying how local conditions favor or discourage specific types of interventions geared toward supporting democracy. Meanwhile, policymakers and donors who work on democracy promotion, many of whom have backgrounds in political science, legal studies, or economics, should appreciate the potential for sociologists to contribute to their programming and evaluation efforts. Initiatives to pair sociologists with local activists hold particular promise.

The democracy assistance enterprise faces many obstacles, including, as Steven Walt noted in Foreign Policy some six months before the 2016 election, challenges to democratic norms and institutions within the U.S. and the established democracies of Europe. There is no guarantee that an enhanced role for sociology will be enough to overcome these obstacles. Nonetheless, developing a specialization in democracy promotion would broaden the relevance of sociology by capitalizing on its arsenal of theoretical and methodological tools for producing the knowledge that seems indispensable if democracy assistance is to have a future.

Comments 1


June 21, 2019

I agree with your article. Sure, there is no guarantee that an enhanced role for sociology will be enough to overcome democracy transition obstacles.

The paths for nations pursuing democracy have been far from linear or identical, each with their own distinctive struggle or outcome. In some cases, change has occured in a peaceful manner; in others, powerful military regimes, internal conflict or conflicting political agendas have stifled the transition process.

The hope of the countries transition is the inclusive initiatives such as allowing a diversity of perspectives which will contribute to identifying the most beneficial paths to democratic transition for the societies affected.

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