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Debating Democracy Assistance: 
Sometimes Less is More
(published in Journal of Democracy 10, no. 4 (October 1999): 99-128) 
by Irena Lasota
President of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe

It is not easy to discuss Marina Ottaway and Theresa Chung’s article The Cost of Democracy. On the one hand I can agree and even sympathize with their general theses that some donors introduce supply-driven reforms, instead of demand-driven; that some of the money poured in less developed countries is sometimes, or often, wasted; and that some of the western-financed democratic institutions in these countries will not be able to become self-sustainable.

On the other hand this article puts in one category such vastly different  countries in terms of political, social and economic development, as South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, Cambodia, Benin, Czechoslovakia, Romania and in general in “Eastern European countries” while looking at three areas of development: elections, political parties, and civil society. Unfortunately most are African and Asian countries, not Eastern and Central European  countries or  the former Soviet Union, about which I know more.

Generally speaking, there are three attitudes that are visible in discussions on the role of the western donors in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union in the last ten years. 

1. Donors bragging: we did it, we taught them, we gave them, and we showed them, we won the elections, etc.;
 2. Donors bashing: they don’t know what they do, they throw the money away, if only the taxpayers and the Congress knew the abuses, etc.; 
3. Donors assessing: this program worked, that one did not, this was a good idea, that one was totally loony, etc.

The third approach, applied to post-communist states, shows that some of western donors’ programs not only facilitate and precipitate the transition to democracy, but may in the future serve as the model for supporting democratization in places lagging behind their neighbors, such as Serbia or Uzbekistan.  I want to formulate three simple theses which may bridge my apparent disagreement with Marina Ottaway and Theresa Cheng: a) the positive results are counter-proportional to the amount of money spent; b) the positive results are proportional to the number of local actors involved; c)  local initiatives become self-sustainable when little investments are made in order to facilitate the involvement of local actors.


The very interesting and most important point about post-communist countries is that the first real, by which I mean free and pluralistic, elections, even in what was then the Soviet Union, especially those in the Baltics and some of the non-Russian republics, were organized practically without western support. In some cases in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 some computers were donated, some money was transferred to citizens’ committees to print posters and leaflets, some observers were flown in, but my rough estimate would be that the cost per registered voter would have been at most $.10 (as compared with $11.34 in 1994 in South Africa). In the Republic of Georgia, where I am writing this article, the elections of October 1989, in spite of Soviet laws, Soviet pressure and the lack of any money – local or foreign – were pluralistic, free and had a voter turnout of over 70%. The Western donors, governments and private foundations, (with the exception of the National Endowment for Democracy and the George Soros network of foundations) came with big money and big ideas only for the second rounds of the elections after 1990.

The first round of  elections in the countries emerging from communism required neither many investments nor many voters education initiatives. Voters in the region knew what real elections were. They knew why they had to vote to change their lives and in most of the cases they even knew exactly whom they wanted to vote for or against. 

As the situation became more stable and more complicated at the same time, and democratic fronts and citizens committees started to break into smaller political parties, the western donors started to move in with a whole range of ideas ranging from excellent to ludicrous. Among the best ideas were: exposing local political actors to a diversity of different electoral procedures to let them chose the one most appropriate for their country;  providing simple equipment for the voters’ registration and identification;  training local and regional observers and monitors;  providing money for locally produced voter education brochures; sending communication trainers who helped political parties to present their messages in simple words in a few sentences; and educating them about possibilities of running primaries. Among the worst ideas was to send unprepared, untrained western electoral “observer brigades”, to unfamiliar countries, where they would spend one night before the election dining in the Sheraton, then go to a voting place where the local notable would often stuff the boxes with phony ballots right in front of them,  then return to Sheraton and declare “I wish there were such elections in my country”. Other failed ideas were sending western communication experts to dress all of the candidates in cheerful looking ties and adorn them with slogans successful in the west (the saddest example was to transpose the electoral slogan of Francois Mitterand “The Quiet Force” onto the quiet, meditavie looking Tadeusz Mazowiecki of Poland); and to spend money on establishing polling centers and institutes and making them carry useless and methodologically unsound public opinion polls.

Perhaps the worst of the western donors’ activities, though some say it was unavoidable, was to try to influence the outcome of the elections by choosing favorites or twisting arms of some recipients so they would act according to the whim of the representative of the western donor. I have seen cases were a bona fide democratic party or alliance was ignored because the donors found the party “too nationalistic.” (Often westerners followed the Soviet or western liberal interpretation of that word, totally unsuitable in post-communist states.) Political groups were also ignored if the leader of the party did not show enough deference to the donor’s representative or did not listen to his advice.

To go back to Ottaway and Chung, I do not believe that the western investments in ECE and former Soviet Union were either so large that a reduction will bring noticeable change, nor do I believe that the social awareness and technical possibilities there are so bad that the democratic process cannot survive on its own. On the other hand, it would not be bad to continue with modest support in facilitating access to information on various political processes. It would be especially beneficial to distribute information about positive political developments in neighboring countries and to spread information about political process away from capital cities into the provinces. Today, a typical country emerging from communism needs support mainly for its democratic movement, often for local transportation, communication, leaflets, posters, “how to vote” brochures, observers and monitors. The democratic opposition needs that help much more than the authoritarian regimes since they are deprived of all sources of income and are often in a position to benefit from a program such as  “Head Start” in the U.S.

Political Parties

In post-communist states all parties are not equal. Some parties are more equal than other. The affluent ones, especially those in the authoritarian states, are the heirs of the communist parties. They may have often discarded part of their ideological inheritance, but have always tried to keep the financial one. On the other hand, the democratic parties, frequently in opposition, are often extremely poor, without offices, means of communication or transportation. In the last few years one can detect a trend among the Western donors in post communist countries to shy away from direct support for democratic opposition parties, choosing instead unending training and political tourism. I have too often heard of bright, devoted, democratic leaders forced to stay in luxury hotels, for the cost of what could be their party’s entire monthly budget. Once a year, it would not be a bad idea for Western donors to reassess the political situation, country by country, and directly support, as they did in the beginning of the decade, democratic political parties or coalitions which have a sound political record, a program, and a fighting chance to win in the elections. The examples of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania shows that this was money well spent. The fact that in the last years the West established more friendly relationship with the new authocratic regimes in post-communist states, doesn’t mean that the democratic opposition stopped to be democratic.

Civil Society

There is of course, a certain paradox in helping to create a civil society. One of the premises of the civil society is that it has to grow spontaneously, from the bottom up, it has to respond to the needs of the society. Here I cannot agree more with Ottaway and Chung. The bad news from the region is that a lot of money was spent on introducing agendas from outside and creating NGOs that would please the donors. The good news is that it did not work. The viable NGOs that survived are those which either grew from the bottom up or those who changed the imposed agenda to fit the authentic needs. Western support strengthened the grass roots NGOs,  helped to establish NGO networks and coalitions, and improved their work by providing them with technical and communication equipment. If the Western support for the civil society in Central and Eastern Europe was to stop today, it would be a pity – but not a disaster. Maybe 40% of NGOs would disappear for lack of outside help, but the remaining ones  would prove that 10 years was sufficient for people to acquire a taste for civil society and the knowledge to maintain it. Western donors did help to develop this capacity in thepost-communist states. With money well spent.

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