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Atwood remarks on democracy and development

DAC Chair J. Brian Atwood

Former dean returning to Humphrey School as global policy chair in January 2013.

"Democracy and Development"
Remarks by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Chair J. Brian Atwood
at the Open Society Foundation and the Millennium Challenge Corporation
September 2012 • Washington, D.C.

I thank the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Open Society Foundation and Freedom House for inviting me here today. The topic you are addressing – “The Role of Democratic Accountability and Development Assistance”– is as complex as human behavior. We are still learning how to promote democracy more effectively in the context of the broader challenge of development.

There is no stronger proponent of democracy than Mort Halperin, and no one in my generation in Washington has done more to advance its most cherished principles. The CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation personifies the opportunity our own American democracy provides. In just the past few weeks I have gotten to know Daniel Yohannes and the qualities he brings to this position. Born in Ethiopia, his family sought refuge here from the Mengistu dictatorship. My new friend has succeeded enormously in both government and the private sector.

The MCC has hit its stride under Daniel Yohannes’ leadership. The criteria for its grants have always included democratic governance and this element and other criteria have encouraged our partners to undertake important reforms to qualify. The connection between MCC and the work of USAID has been made — after too much delay in the early days – and now USAID is often helping nations that are making the effort to meet MCC standards. I want here to recognize the early work done on these development standards by the Center for Global Development, and in particular Steve Ratelett, now the chief economist of USAID.

We are not here today to debate whether democratic criteria should be part of the MCC standards package. That issue has been decided on a bipartisan basis – something that is rare in Washington. Rather, our goal is to understand the dynamic created by these standards.

In the recent DAC peer review of the United States, the MCC was cited by DAC reviewers as a model program in respecting the Paris and Busan principles of country ownership, mutual accountability, transparency and use of country systems. Yet the MCC approach is not without controversy. When one government sets standards and sits in judgment of another, care must be taken. The line between conditionality and selectivity is a very thin one. Yet, MCC has been transparent about its expectations and it has managed through effective diplomacy to create partnerships and an important degree of trust in its relationships.

I want to share with you some observations about democratic development interventions and offer some comments on the state of this work in the community represented by the DAC member states. Let me start by revisiting the development rationale for the emphasis we place on democracy and accountable governance and some challenges as I see them.

Over the past several years since I left the presidency of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and joined the ranks of the broader development community, I have become more aware of the tensions between these two complementary professional cultures. Those working on the specifics of democratic development—on political parties, parliaments, human rights or civil society—often express frustration that other aspects of development work too often seem to take precedence.

Those working on the social agendas –related in their minds to reducing poverty more directly, and more measurably – acknowledge the need for good governance, but they worry that the activities in which we must engage to influence behavior in this field are too political, even too interventionist in nature. Those engaged directly with civil society organizations, political parties or parliaments are impatient with the cautionary signals they receive from their funders. Appreciating the connections among all aspects of development work may not allay these concerns, but it should be our starting point.

While many in the field will resist the notion, development cooperation itself is inherently political. Its objective is to make land, labor and capital more valuable. This requires intense interaction and change—between a government and its people, and between developing country partners and those who seek to cooperate with them.

On a more philosophical plane, the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, in his book “Development as Freedom,” cites evidence that economic and political freedom reinforce one another. He challenges us to incorporate the roles and interconnections of “certain instrumental freedoms, including economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.” He makes a compelling case that our “integrated analysis” must include institutions such as the state, the market, the legal system, political parties, the media, public interest groups and public discussion forums among others. Thus, Sen defines our development agenda in a very broad, all-encompassing swath.

Sen would be the first to acknowledge that context is all important. There is no valid one-size-fits all global recipe for success in development. This point has been consistently driven home by the Paris principle of ownership. Only the people of a country can be the source of authority and legitimacy. They must own a development process that, among other things, reconciles the tensions between tradition and cultural heritage on the one hand, and economic progress and political change on the other.

Having said that, no government can justify keeping people in abject poverty to preserve tradition. This is not a clear cut matter, as neither tradition nor progress can be ignored by a society. Yet—and this is an important caveat-- outsiders cannot ultimately reconcile these tensions. What we can and should do is insist that governments facilitate the participation of citizens in the development process, preserve fundamental rights, and be accountable.

We must remind ourselves that development cooperation is not primarily about resource transfer; rather its most important currency is trust. Nowhere is this principle more important than in democracy work. We learned this early on at NDI. We developed the capacity to listen to our partners. Most often those individuals had suffered personal deprivations because of their beliefs, often including imprisonment and torture. They inspired our loyalty and respect.

In the early days of NDI, our Board members were deeply worried that we would be perceived as intervening in the internal affairs of partner countries. Representing one of the two major political parties of a superpower, we were extraordinarily careful to consult with governments, even the authoritarian ones. Yet, we took our queue from the real democrats. We used diplomacy to make our way, but we never lost sight of the objective: to help the democrats succeed.

Thus, we were able to work with the people of the Philippines and the people of Chile who wanted democratic change. We worked with the people of Eastern and Central Europe and Africa as they established democratic institutions. NDI rode the wave of democratic change, but, joined by a growing number of democratic activist allies, we also managed to influence its direction and increase its velocity.

Those early days of democracy promotion were exciting. Authoritarian governments had not yet caught on and they were leaving openings, perhaps overly confident that they had it all under control. But Marcos fell to the “People Power Revolution.” Pinochet fell to his own plebiscite. Communism imploded because it failed to comprehend human nature and its desire for freedom. Military dictatorships expired as people came to understand that conjured threats are not real. In Africa and Asia, the ancien regimes gave way to the aspirations of a generation that wanted to mobilize political competition and accountability around a positive message of development progress, not just anti-colonialism. I was very proud of the role NDI played in those days.

The past decade hasn’t been as heady as those early days. Until recently the decade has been characterized more as a building process for all those new and fragile democracies. The work, like more traditional development work, is more incremental. It takes a prolonged effort to help partners build institutions as opposed to participating in peaceful revolutions. Meanwhile, the remaining authoritarian regimes have gotten more clever. They have harassed the NDIs of the world or closed their offices. They have tried mightily to restrict their access to people.

There are also warning signals that the push for country ownership was being interpreted by some governments as excluding civil society. The Busan agreement makes clear that ownership means accountable government and a strong civil society. We need to guard against the tendency of some governments to feel threatened by an active civil society.

Today, we are witnessing a new wave of democracy. The human spirit will not be denied as we have seen in the Middle East, in Burma, Russia and even in places like Iran and Cuba. The internet revolution gives people more access to ideas and more hope to those struggling against repression. Yet, as we have seen in recent days, unleashing pent-up emotion in a long-suppressed society can be dangerous. As studies have shown, there is a strong correlation between fragile democracies and state failure.

The DAC Governance Network and its secretariat has been examining the universe of donor efforts in this area and has recently released a draft study called “Orientations and Principles on Development Cooperation, Accountability and Democratic Governance.” This was an effort to take stock of experience, survey emerging trends, assess leading thinking and literature and identify promising innovations in the field. In-depth case studies were carried out in Mali, Mozambique, Peru and Uganda.

The record is clearly a mixed one for donors. The evidence points to the need for a more comprehensive approach and more deference to our partners as they evolve their systems. The main premise of the report is to look at ways to improve support to accountability in developing countries – and by all means “do no harm” and avoid undermining inherently political processes. That does not mean shying away from the political side; rather it means operating more smartly to support the evolving flow.

Our study shows that only about 9 percent of the approximately $130 billion we spend collectively on development is devoted to democracy/governance programs. I cannot say whether that is adequate or not. But I can say that when professionals are asked what the biggest factor is in holding back development progress, they usually reply “poor governance.”

How is that 9 percent spent? Well, 48 percent is spent on legal and judicial development and public sector administration. 17% is spent on civil society participation, 14 percent on decentralization and financial management, 7 percent on human rights, 4 percent on women’s’ equality, 2 percent on media and 6 percent on elections. These are all important pieces of a democratic society, but one has to ask whether these percentages in any given case relate to need, or, rather, relate to what is more comfortable for the donor. I will underscore that question by telling you that only 1 percent of the whole is spent on legislatures and political parties; only 1 percent is spent on anti-corruption organizations. We need to ask ourselves how this distribution supports the democratic accountability agenda.

As our study states, “Institutions and processes such as parliaments, elections, political parties, the media and civil society shape and animate the relationship between the state and society.” We are doing a slightly better job of supporting these institutions, but that may only be because international support for election processes has vastly expanded in the past 20 years. Yet, as we know, even good elections alone do not create healthy democracies. Support during the entire electoral cycle, well before the election and well after is critical.

The openings created by the Arab Spring and in Burma accentuate our need for better analysis of the local context. Here we need to marry the development perspective with solid political analysis. Our report advocates “going with the grain,” but that isn’t possible without a deep understanding of the forces that are shaping these transitions. The toolkit for transitions has been pretty well developed by USAID’s Office of Transitions Initiatives, but that has to be linked to political teams in the field and, later, to the longer term development strategy. These efforts must facilitate the leadership of local actors as is called for in the “New Deal,” an agreement reached in Busan, Korea late last year between leaders of “fragile” states and donors.

Two other messages that come through in this study: 1) donors have tended to replicate accountability models that have worked in their home country, using blueprints not necessarily sufficiently tailored to the context; and 2) there is insufficient effort to work with partner country governments to design holistic approaches which link support to parliaments, political parties and media outlets by building bridges among coalitions and alliances that support accountability through participation. The goal is to achieve genuine national ownership of accountability mechanisms, and that cannot be done if we try to import them from elsewhere. The ideal situation is an MCC recipient that has devised a national strategy for governance and accountability and has the confidence and support needed to encourage institutions to work together to reinforce the essential elements of democracy.

We are in the era of a Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation. This Partnership, created by 160 nations, civil society and the private sector in Busan last year creates a space for dialogue as we focus on country ownership and country results. We know that there are different models for development and different approaches. However, whatever model one adopts, accountability has to be part of a sustainable system.

Every major provider of development cooperation now subscribes to partner country ownership. And we all understand that the participation of the people is an essential recipe for success. If we listen to one another more effectively across cultures, and coordinate our efforts, we will see the benefits of more accountable systems in every sector of development.

In the end, success in democratic development means combining effective diplomacy with a talent for listening well to a nation’s most effective democratic leaders. Those individuals may be advocates for change in an authoritarian government. They may be civil society leaders. They may be academics. They may even be serving prison terms as victims of human rights abuse. And they may be all of the above. So long as they are advocates for peaceful democratic change, they should be our allies. These are the people who both inspire us and inform our efforts. In that narrower sense, and while we have learned much about how to do this work over the years, not much has changed.

Thank you.

Or read his remarks in PDF format: DAC Chair on Democracy and Development