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Policy Debates
Aid and Democratisation

Democracy Promotion at a Local Level : Experiences, Perspectives and Policy of Swiss International Cooperation

Martin Dahinden

Editors' notes

This paper is a contribution to the ‘Policy Debate’ section of the International Development Policy. In this section, academics, policy makers and practitioners engage in a dialogue on global development challenges. Papers are copy-edited but not peer-reviewed. Instead, an initial thematic contribution is followed by critical comments and reactions from different stakeholders.

Authored by Martin Dahinden, Director-General of the Swiss Development and Cooperation (SDC) agency, the paper focuses on the role of international development cooperation in democracy promotion and decentralisation.

It is followed by a reaction from Olivier Roy, professor of political sciences at the European University Institute (Florence) – (also in French), Jean Bossuyt, Head of Strategy, EU External Action Programme of the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) and Didier Péclard, Senior researcher & Head of the Statehood and Conflict Programme, swisspeace.

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Full text

I would like to thank Andrea Iff and Marco Pfister from swisspeace, who were asked by the SDC’s Analysis and Policy Division to write a discussion paper on the SDC’s democracy promotion. The project further received advice and drew extensively from dlgn’s (SDC Decentralisation and Local Governance Network) work. The results of dlgn’s work are accessible in full detail on the dlgn website,

What is democracy promotion?

1Today, we are witnessing a new wave of interest in democracy. In his 2009 Guidance Note on Democracy, the UN Secretary General brought it to the point: ‘Democracy, based on the rule of law, is ultimately a means to achieve international peace and security, economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights’ (UN Secretary General, 2009). The Secretary General's statement also effectively summarizes the main reasons and motivations behind Switzerland's engagement in the field of democracy assistance. As a small European state, we have an overwhelming interest in a peaceful world governed by law; as an export-oriented economy we benefit from stability and respect for human rights abroad. Switzerland's humanitarian tradition, finally, similarly supports the promotion of democracy.

2But what is democracy? Even though the concept is still not unanimously shared, over the last several years, a broad international consensus has emerged. Most of definitions are based on two basic concepts derived from the seminal work of the political scientist Robert Dahl political equality and popular participation in decision-making. In order to achieve this, certain "essential elements" are required: vertical accountability mechanisms, such as elections, and horizontal accountability mechanisms, such as the separation and balance of powers. But how do countries acquire these mechanisms, and how do we translate this conceptual definition into democracy promotion?

  • 1  Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice Presiden (...)

3As illustrated by the recent events in North Africa, we have long understood that democracy requires more than just formal institutions and procedures, such as elections. Rather, there needs to be what the EU has termed ‘deep democracy’:1 an understanding that democracy is not merely a matter of changing governments, but about building the right institutions and the right attitudes for a given societal context. Democracy promotion thus includes respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, respect for human rights, an independent judiciary and impartial administration. This new wave of democracy promotion is also informed by several critiques developed over the past two decades, based on the transitional experiences of Eastern Europe and the Arab spring.

4As will be developed throughout this article, Switzerland shares this commitment to deeper democracy not just as a result of its democracy assistance efforts but also through its own experience at home. The Swiss governance system, which is very much influenced by the practice of direct democracy, offers all citizen an opportunity for active participation in decision-making. Its stability is derives from the deeply-ingrained belief of Swiss citizens in the value of democracy and the creation of institutional incentives to seek consensus and consider the needs of minorities in decision-making.

5Discussions on democracy promotion have kept the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) busy for many years. An initial milestone was the fall of the Iron Curtain, which opened the way for democratisation in former communist countries. Concerns regarding development effectiveness in relation to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and state fragility and conflict have kept the debate on the importance of better governance and effective states to development cooperation success alive. Most recently, the democratic uprisings in the Middle East have raised new questions among scholars as well as policy makers and practitioners: How can we support civil society actors to become true agents of democracy? How do we include the military in democratisation processes? How can we support parties and parliamentary structures? How can we impartially support both the opposition and the government? In the following article, I tackle four recurrent issues in the democracy promotion debate, informed by the experiences of Switzerland and the SDC, that are central to this new understanding of ‘deep democracy’.

A New Way of Democracy Promotion?

Developed Democracy – Democratic Development

6Having elaborated our understanding of democracy promotion namely the support of actors in achieving respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, respect for human rights, an independent judiciary and impartial administration we will now establish the link between democracy and development. Why are we, as a development organization, particularly suited to promoting democracy? The discussion is an old one. Since the 1960s, we have known that ‘democracy promoters’ and ‘development actors’ should join forces. The SDC is convinced, moreover, that democracy and development are complementary; they reinforce each other. We are convinced that democratic advances are unlikely to be sustainable if they are not matched by wealth and job creation, as well as a corresponding reduction in inequality. The link between democracy and development originates from both the rights and obligations borne by peoples and individuals. We also know, however, that the depth and breadth of these noble sentiments is not enough. The Washington Consensus, to name the most significant example, incorporated a recognition of these simple links, and yet we have seen that in several contexts, the Consensus did more harm than good. As such, the SDC must strive to establish this link in its practical and daily work. The SDC’s experience in decentralisation activities provides an interesting example of this practice. On a smaller scale, they illustrate the strong interrelation of political and technical issues; political, administrative and fiscal decentralisation define the priorities for the rule of law, institutional democratisation, the improvement of public services, local control over resources and eradication of poverty. With this in mind, we realize that mere sequencing is not a solution. Instead, we must endeavor to build specific democracy promotion aims into every development project.

Democracy Assistance requires National Ownership

7Evidence from a number of countries indicates that the efforts of international actors to impose democracy in the absence of strong domestic support are unlikely to be successful in the long run. In many cases, such actions risk doing significant harm (Foresti and Harris, 2011, 9). To be successful, democracy assistance must be sensitive to context, such as different standards of living, different societal compositions and histories of conflict, or different economic and political institutional capacity. In other words, we need to understand the context-specific ‘social fabric’ to perform effective democracy promotion. Such efforts need to be anchored in a collective vision of progress, reflected in home-grown and shared democratic agendas. Instead of exporting democracy, an emphasis should be placed on processes of dialogue aimed at determining factors and modalities of democracy, such as inclusive and peaceful processes of decision-making and strong domestic accountability systems for effective states. This also implies a renewed interest in the ‘drivers of democracy’, leading to the development of programs empowering the most relevant (i.e. influential) actors, both positively and negatively, and increasing the political weight and active role of often-disempowered groups such as women, youth and minorities.

8The SDC works with civil society organizations (CSOs) as key development actors and helps them develop democratic ownership, as they begin to participate in the policy-making process and act as a voice of marginalized groups. The SDC engages with these local drivers of democracy in several ways: (a) financing the activities of CSOs (either directly or through a basket fund that may include earmarked contributions); (b) mandating CSOs directly with a particular activity; (c) building the capacity of the CSOs and associated partners; or (d) incorporating a political dialogue as to the implementation of programing into each project. The aid modalities strongly depend on the specific contexts of a country. This discussion of national ownership is linked to recent international interest in supporting and promoting effective states in fragile contexts. In 2007, the OECD/DAC published the Principles for Good Engagement in Fragile States and Situations, based on the understanding that these contexts require a different approach (Mcloughlin, 2012). The work of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (a forum for discussion between the OECD and the G7+, a group of self-declared fragile states) is also relevant in this regard. It culminated, in November 2011, in the ‘New Deal’, the outcome of the fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, in Busan. They concluded that the complex state-society relations typical to fragile and conflict-affected societies must be taken into account in policy reform, state-led service delivery and the support of democratic elections (UNDP, 2012, 11).

  • 2  Local Governance Assessments are used by the SDC’s donors and partners to evaluate the performance (...)

9Over the years, the SDC has developed different instruments to promote and incorporate effective local governance and social accountability in its work. The SDC has conducted and supported various local governance assessments,2 developing an in-depth understanding of not only baseline and existing needs, but also the demands of establishing various forms of domestic accountability at local level. The SDC conducts its national assessments of political economy and democratic progress in a similar manner, sensitively assessing different kinds of support to actors or processes in its democracy promotion programs. Local governance or democracy assessments will not necessarily diminish the potential for conflict inherent to possible interventions; to the contrary, such assessments may even inadvertently trigger further conflict, as they try to take horizontal inequalities truly into account. As indicated above, however, the SDC is aware of the political nature of its work and will therefore continue to employ a multi-stakeholder approach designed to build consensus among all involved groups and establish (political) space for sustainable and effective interventions.

10Furthermore, the SDC has made the strategic decision to increase its work in fragile and conflict affected states by 15-20 per cent. As a result, the SDC recently decided to evaluate its instruments for fragile and conflict-affected situations. This evaluation externally commissioned but developed for internal purposes found that the SDC is well positioned to work in fragile states. It has the right mixture of approaches, strong operational instincts and the potential to play an important and valuable role in the wider international system. An emerging consensus exists as to the types of assistance needed to help fragile states and post-conflict countries get on the path to development. Priorities include providing security, helping establish legitimate and transparent institutions, providing jobs and spurring economic activity. Correspondingly, in addition to the SDC’s focus on service provision at the local level, an increasing emphasis will also be placed on the rule of law and security sector reform, building on the number of such projects currently underway (e.g. security sector in Bolivia).

Democracy Assistance requires a Long-Term Commitment

11Informed by the recognition that Europe itself required centuries to reach the level of democracy it enjoys today, it is not disputed that democratisation is a long-term and non-linear process. The need to pursue sustainable development in tandem with strengthened democratic governance thus exists in tension with the short-term imperative for development cooperation to produce success stories. This also lines up with some recent reflections on the Millennium Development Goals. While there is general agreement that the MDGs have had a tremendous influence on the international aid agenda, they have also triggered criticism. Conversations regarding the aims and nature of the post-MDG development framework have been underway for some time, and are expected to peak in 2013. Until now, democratic governance has been ‘overlooked’ in the MDGs. Functioning democratic institutions are a decisive supportive factor, however, in the achievement truly participatory, effective and sustainable development results.

12One of the SDC’s priorities is to engage in long-term dialogue and cooperation regarding democracy, on the basis of strong relationships with relevant local stakeholders within the political institutions and civil society. Forging and maintaining these relationships requires a significant amount of trust that can only be reached through a pattern of sustained and constructive engagement over several years. The SDC's programs, split into ‘phases’, very often span a time period of more than a decade, thus allowing the establishment of key relationships and the continuity needed to accompany long-term processes. To this end, the SDC will also promote the inclusion of democracy as a new MDG.

Democracy Assistance is Political

13Democratisation is a process that by definition changes the power dynamics within a society, and democracy assistance, in supporting this process, is thus inherently political. Nevertheless, providing support for democratic transitions remains a legitimate endeavor sanctioned in the Swiss constitution. The key challenge is to design a programmatic response that is non-partisan and entails work with all political stakeholders, including both government and opposition forces.

14This insight is linked again to the OECD’s initiative on aid effectiveness. Apart from the principle of local ownership, it also resulted in an agreement on the principle of accountability. While developing countries stress the need for the international accountability of aid, OECD donor countries usually emphasize the need for ‘domestic accountability’ by recipients. Most recently, this has led to discussions regarding the importance of certain elements of democratic governance and the development of principles related to supporting electoral processes, the media, as well as political parties and parliaments.

15As Switzerland is often seen as an impartial player, thus facilitating engagement in politically difficult areas, the SDC is particularly well situated for deepening democracy promotion. Over the years, the SDC has also accumulated a tremendous amount of experience in decentralisation, particularly with respect to the modalities most effective in ensuring that bringing government closer to the people is coupled with an increase in democracy and accountability. To ensure this, CSOs were strengthened such that they were able to fulfill their role in promoting social accountability and lobby for the appropriate use of public funds. Furthermore, in order to better promote democracy, the SDC has begun to include political economy analysis in its programming, moving the ‘hidden’ aspects of power to the forefront of its analysis. This means looking beyond the façade of formal democratic systems in order to understand the relevant power relations inherent to a particular setting and then translating this knowledge into concrete programming.

Democracy Promotion and Swiss Cooperation

Mandate to Promote Democracy

  • 3  Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation, Art. 54, Paragraph 2: ‘The Confederation shall en (...)

16Swiss foreign policy has a clear constitutional mandate to support democracy and good governance.3 The Swiss Federal Council’s Message on International Cooperation 2013 to 2016 thus includes providing support to states undergoing transitions to democratic, market-based systemsas one of five strategic goals, and outlines the preferred approach for their achievement (SDC, 2012b, 30). The main areas of focus that fall under the rubric of this goal are state reform, local governance and citizen participation.

  • 4  Both principles of constitutional recognition emphasize the importance of subnational governments (...)

17The way in which we promote democracy in international relations is deeply rooted in our own democratic culture, history and practice. Switzerland was built from bottom up, in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity and municipal autonomy4, thus promoting both local authority and citizen participation. These political features interact with more traditional forms of political life, such as parties, elected bodies or courts. Thus, the Swiss federal system, as well as its form of direct democracy, underscores the core ideas of our approach to democracy promotion: decentralisation, domestic accountability, democratic ownership, transparency and citizens’ participation. The local level is considered the basis for democracy, where the establishment of legitimate, effective and accountable governments is key.

18Switzerland has been involved in local democracy promotion for decades. To illustrate this in figures, between 2006 and 2010 CHF 338 million have been spent on the promotion of rule of law and democratisation. Within this, 43 per cent was spent on the establishment of institutions and support of democratic processes, 11 per cent on decentralisation, 24 per cent on local service delivery (efficiency, quality, just access, etc.), and 21 per cent on local government (accountability, transparency).

19In the following, I will discuss the SDC’s contribution to democracy promotion, distinguishing between projects that aim to (a) render the state more democratic and (b) empower democratic actors of democracy. Human rights, as well as the empowerment of women, youth and disadvantaged groups, are crosscutting issues. As in any other field of development, gender-sensitivity is mainstreamed. For each of these issues, I use an illustrative example to highlight the work of the SDC.

Rendering the State more Democratic

20Democracy promotion at the local level is one of the core knowledge areas of the SDC. Democratic transition entails building strong institutions and a capable state. Effective and responsive public administration, both national and local, is vital, not only due to its role in managing resources and steering economic and social development, but also as a key instrument for shaping democratic state-society relationships and good governance (UN Secretary General, 2009, 8).

21Supporting Decentralisation and Good Governance at the Local Level

22As indicated above, the SDC has over 30 years of experience, knowledge and expertise in decentralisation and local governance to draw upon. We are aware of the advantages and disadvantages of decentralised structures and apply this knowledge to promote suitable decentralisation policies in our partner countries. The ideal situation includes the creation of entities with clear tasks, responsibilities, competencies and finances. Fiscal compensation mechanisms distribute resources between regions of differing wealth and regulate the financial flows between local governments and the center. Autonomous counties with fiscal sovereignty provide the services needed by their citizens and enable developmental progress for all sectors of society.

23Among the important lessons learned by the SDC is that the various aspects of decentralisation (political, administrative, fiscal) must go hand in hand; local governments will not be able to deliver on their new responsibilities if they are not financially capable of doing so. In a similar vein, support also needs to address the generally weaker capacity of institutions at the sub-national levels, as only a viable and active local society is aware of its rights and duties. In order to be effective and sustainable, however, support must include all government levels. Further, as indicated above, decentralisation programs need to be based on sound political economy analyses that map out both influential actors that may drive the process forward and potential winners and losers of such processes, in order to avoid efforts by the latter to thwart progress.

24The SDC’s CHF 13 million governance and decentralisation program in Mongolia is a prime example of this experience in action. In Mongolia, the SDC has earned respect as a bilateral lead donor with a ‘hands-on’ approach in important sectors, such as the streamlining of government services. Local mandates and SDC self-implementation, supported by international backing, were consciously chosen as the preferred aid modalities. As early as the 2007-2012 cooperation strategy, the SDC worked on governance, with a focus on improving access to public administrative services and increasing the self-governance capacity of local governments and communities. The main improvement derived from this period is the inclusion of governance as its own domain, referred to as State Reform, Local Governance and Civic Participation, in the new 2013-2016 strategy. In this domain, Swiss support will foster efficient and fair local governments, satisfied citizens and genuinely representative and effective CSOs.

25Promotion of Good Governance

26Analogous to democracy, there is no global consensus on the concept of good governance. Within the SDC, we assume that ‘good’ governance refers primarily to the output side of government legitimacy, i.e. government capability and performance in delivering essential services to citizens. ‘Democratic’ governance, on the other hand, refers to the input side of government legitimacy, i.e. referencing how and to what extent citizens are able to influence decision-making. In this sense, the most important question in this domain is: How can governments be supported in such a way that their activities are in line with the principles of non-discrimination and effectiveness?

27The SDC is involved in good governance processes in a variety of ways, such as fostering transparent taxation and clear budgetary priorities at the local level. Through the use of different local governance support instruments, the SDC also fights against corruption. An interesting example of the specific SDC approach, strongly based on dialogue and locally embedded processes, is a 2009-2013 project in Bolivia, wherein the SDC has worked to build the capacity of democratic institutions and promote dialogue between both the various levels of government and the government(s) and the population. Through technical support to the Executive, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defense, the program improves these institutions’ ability to implement the national plan of action for human rights. At the same time, the SDC assists the Ministry of Transparency and Anti-Corruption in its endeavor to scale-up a system allowing for the transparent and efficient administration of funds in various other ministries. Finally, the establishment of discussion forums promotes open dialogue between public sector institutions and civil society. Contributions and reflections of universities and think tanks to these discussions are intended to facilitate the transparent, factual and balanced implementation of the new constitution.

28Strengthening the Rule of Law and Security Sector Reform

29According to the UN Secretary General, the rule of law is a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the state itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. If political equality and popular control are the two main elements common to any definition of democracy, then the rule of law should be understood as underscoring these aims. It is based on the equality of citizens before the law and the popular control of all segments of society, including the judiciary and the armed forces.

30The SDC also has ample experience in this field (Schlaeppi, 2008). The most recent insights into these forms of assistance suggest that development actors ought to attempt to influence the cultural norms and expectations of public servants and citizens, thus encouraging bottom-up change within society through an emphasis on power and culture instead of laws and institutions. A functioning separation of powers and corresponding legal framework for the subordinate entities are necessary conditions for a democratic and efficient state based on the rule of law. The SDC also supports security sector reforms as part of its democratisation strategies in different countries. The Access to Justice and Judicial Reform Project (2008-2011) in Tajikistan, which addressed, amongst other issues, the weakness of the judiciary, is an example of one such program. The project thus focused on building the capacity of Tajik judges, increasing their competence and professionalism and thus their ability to render justice in accordance with the law.

Promote Democracy Stakeholders

31A second set of SDC democracy promotion activities may be subsumed under the promotion of democracy stakeholders. As indicated above, the external imposition of democracy in the absence of strong domestic support is unlikely to be successful in the long run. On the contrary, such actions risk doing significant harm (Foresti and Harris, 2011). An explicit focus on domestic democratic stakeholders or drivers of democratic change is therefore extremely important (UN Secretary General, 2009, 3); without democrats there can be no democracy. Democratisation is only possible if those who believe in democracy are prepared to commit to it. Supporting processes of democratisation must therefore begin with an attempt to identify potential drivers of change, namely organized or individual democratic opposition forces and/or human rights defenders.

32We believe that as Switzerland, we have a tradition of transparent and democratic political discourse and provide platforms for the expression of diverse viewpoints and perspectives. Until now, support for democracy stakeholders was strongly focused on civil society and the media. Recently, the SDC has begun to engage with stakeholders involved with formal political institutions, like political parties or parliaments, as well.

33Support to Civil Society

34From the 1990s to the present, support to civil society has been the main medium through which SDC channels its democracy assistance (Youngs, 2005, 42). A well-functioning, vibrant and pluralistic civil society sector can contribute to democratic governance in various ways. CSOs can influence the state by lobbying for more transparency and promoting a more informed and engaged citizenry that, as a result, is more likely to hold government accountable. This approach has been subject to criticism, increasingly so following the recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa region, as donors tend to assist professionalized CSOs rather than other types of groups that make up civil society (e.g. groups lacking formal education at the political periphery).

35The SDC has a recognized tradition of supporting long-term citizen awareness and promoting plurality. Our projects focus on the establishment of checks and balances through CSOs and contribute to the diversity of power through citizens and human rights organizations. For example, the SDC has implemented a CHF 12 million social accountability program in Tanzania (2009-2014), with the aim of strengthening the capacity of civil society to engage with local government institutions on matters of public planning, budgeting and performance monitoring, thus improving service delivery at the local level.

36Media Development

  • 5 ‘ ICTs include ‘mobile phones and Internet-based applications such as email, blogs, forums, social (...)

37The media's role in a democratic system is to provide access to information and a platform for debate and discussion be it on the performance of the government, the needs of the people, the issues affecting a particular country or region, the opinions of civil society leaders and the programs of political parties, etc. A well-developed media sector ensures transparency and provides the first element required for government accountability. With the rise of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), including new Social Media, this sector of democracy assistance is rapidly changing. During the Arab Spring, policy analysts acknowledged the importance of ICTs5 and all related forms of media as strong catalysts for social change.

38The SDC promotes the media as a political actor through the provision of support for electoral campaigns and civic education. In post-conflict Sudan, and now in the newly independent nation of South Sudan, for instance, the SDC has implemented a media support program since 2005, with the aim of ensuring access to high-quality informational and educational news-sources for the Sudanese population, allowing the people to remain abreast of the political, economic and social changes taking place in their country and play an active and responsible role in the reconstruction process.

  • 6  Workshop with IDEA on New Media, October 2012.

39Furthermore, the SDC also questions and discusses the role of new information technologies, particularly the connection between new forms of democratic action undertaken via ICT and that conducted through classical institutions like political parties.6

40Support to Political Parties and Parliaments

41In hybrid political systems, where democratic institutions are in place, but are captured by an insular elite, regular elections take place but do not result in significant transfers of power. Citizens live in a political and institutional context where human rights remain subject to abuse and few, if any, alternative political choices are available to citizens. The executive branches of government remain dominant, unresponsive to the needs of the citizenry, as well as largely unaccountable and opaque. A common feature of such systems is the weakness and elite capture of political parties, which, in other circumstances, would be crucially important to a functioning democracy. The roles and work of political parties is closely interlinked with that of parliaments, and the effectiveness of each depends on the quality and strength of the other.

  • 7  And in line with the OECD/DAC GOVNET orientations and principles.
  • 8  While in most countries the parliamentarians do not have another profession, in Switzerland, most (...)

42The SDC is well aware that one key challenge of support to political parties and parliaments is the political nature of such work. In order to circumvent this7, we support the capacity development of political parties in a systemic manner, including all major parties and addressing the rules for the functioning and financing of political parties. Relevant issues would be the ways in which they relate to each other and to major political institutions. Switzerland’s semi-professional parliament8 and political party system characterized by few paid human resources and financial dependence on other powerful stakeholders, like business associations, lobbies or trade unions, from the outside, might not appear to be the best partner for political party support and development. We are convinced, however, that we are well-suited to supporting niche actions with regard to the responsiveness and accountability of elites to their party members: What is the best way to promote internal democracy within parties? What is required to organize a ‘decentralised’ party where support is rooted in the communities? Furthermore, due to the semi-professional militia system, the Swiss parliamentary support system is highly elaborated. This provides an interesting case for consideration when thinking about the best support organizations for parliaments.

43The SDC has already implemented a few projects strengthening parliaments or parties. From early 2009 to the end of 2012, the SDC implemented a program aimed at assisting the Macedonian Parliament on its path to becoming a well-functioning, autonomous legislature through the improvement of its law-making capacities. The establishment and development of the Macedonian Parliamentary Institute, which provides parliamentarians with independent, high-quality research and analysis as well as parliamentary training, is meant to substantially increase the capacity of parliamentarians to fulfill their constitutional obligation to act as independent legislators and hold government accountable. This, and other such projects are still under evaluation, and the SDC will take required the time to adapt and ameliorate the existing projects for other contexts.

44Support to Independent Institutions

45In situations where the state is either very weak or dominated by a single party (which is almost by definition the case in democratic transitions), credible, trusted leadership is required for the management of highly sensitive and delicate political processes. This role is often delegated – be it by public authorities or, in their absence, by international organizations or bodies – to independent institutions, composed either of neutral, respected personalities, or of diverse sets of political stakeholders whose vested interests balance each other. Some of the most prominent institutions are Constitutional Review Commissions and Electoral Management bodies, but this category may also include Human Rights Commissions, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and/or Media Councils, to name just a few. As the independence of these institutions is of paramount importance to their credibility, donors can make a significant contribution by strengthening their capacity or increasing their financial independence. The main challenge related to the strengthening of such institutions is that donors tend to focus on short-term, technical assistance rather than building long-term managerial capacity that extends beyond singular events or processes.

46The SDC sees its comparative advantage in this field mainly in the provision of long-term support and capacity building for these types of institutions. For example, running from mid-2001 to the end of 2013, the SDC has developed a program to strengthen electoral and democratic practices in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). By enhancing the institutional and technical capacity of the SADC Secretariat and electoral stakeholders in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, the program aims to promote peaceful, democratic and credible elections in the region. The SADC Electoral Advisory Council and its Electoral Support Unit are tasked with assisting and facilitating the consolidation of electoral systems and processes by advising member states on strategies and issues, enhancing and consolidating the capacity of regional electoral management bodies, and encouraging them to adhere to international best practices during elections.

47So, what was the impact of the SDC’s recent democracy promotion and what experience have we gained? To be frank, the SDC has never systematically evaluated its development work in terms of democratic variables. Some of the insights of two other evaluations, however, may be important here, to recognize and build upon. The decentralisation efforts of the SDC were most recently evaluated in 2007. The overall conclusion of that report was national government decentralisation initiatives must include support for government at all levels. It also stated, furthermore, that an effective support strategy should involve an assessment of the "dosage", or ‘distribution’, of support among various players, at various times. The evaluation of the performance of SDC instruments in fragile and conflict-affected contexts found that the SDC is wellpositioned to work in fragile states. It has the right mixture of approaches, strong operational instincts and the ability to play an important and valuable role in the wider international system. The SDC has a range of instruments it may employ in fragile contexts. While the individual performance of these instruments is strong, there is considerable potential to improve their overall performance by bringing the different instruments together to address root causes of fragility and conflict. At the same time, the evaluation also notes that the SDC needs to become more flexible, and complement its technical efforts with political understanding and positioning. The current Swiss approach to democracy promotion takes up the findings of these two evaluations (SDC, 2007, 2012a). Amongst others, it places a renewed emphasis on the importance of a twofold strategy of strengthening the state while simultaneously empowering democratic actors. Similarly, the new approach also takes seriously the proposition that the SDC must become more political in its work.

  • 9  These examples stem from an e-discussionin the framework of the dlgn learning projecton civil soci (...)

48Such a focus on more explicitly political programing, of course, bears certain risks for donors, such as vulnerability to accusations of political interference or partiality. In the worst case, this could lead to a situation wherein certain partners shy away from future collaboration. From a programing point of view, not only are political actors are perceived as unpredictable, but due to the changeability of political ‘landscapes’, moreover, the relevant political program partners are likely to change entirely (due, for example, to early elections). In SDC projects,9 several strategies have been applied to counter these risks, such as (a) engaging with formal institutions, such as a parliamentary committee or local parliaments in general (Ukraine). The advantage of working with formal institutions is that they are not as subject to sudden changes, making it is possible to develop sustainable continuity and ownership over results. Similarly, the SDC also seeks to (b) engage all actors of a specific group, such as, for instance, all candidates for mayoral posts, in public discussions on political accountability (Kosovo). In this way, all political actors are involved in program activities in a transparent and participatory manner. Finally, the SDC also works to (c) engage with individual MPs (‘champions of change’), whose standing may not be tied solely to their parliamentary mandate, and who can engage in project activities or in evidence-based advocacy (Serbia).

49The best means of assessing the efficacy and success of democracy promotion remains an open issue to be addressed by the overall international community, in cooperation with its partner countries.

European Democracy Promotion

50Having discussed the Swiss perspective on democracy promotion, enlightened by the dominant discourses and debates at the multilateral level, we now turn to the potential collaboration of Switzerland and the EU in democracy promotion. Here, we are interested in a ‘dare to share’ approach. Switzerland has its own historical experience in promoting democracy in Eastern Europe. Today, both Switzerland and the EU are interested in capitalizing on their knowledge and past experience to support the democratisation process in North Africa.

51The European Union is involved in democracy promotion through the New European Neighborhood Policy (recently reformed as a result of the Arab Spring). The promotion of democracy also takes other forms, such as the interactions between EU officials and the neighboring national governments to which they are seconded. Democracy assistance is aid directed at actors supporting democratic change. Thus far, the EU's major tool in this regard has been the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), which has a budget of EUR 1.1 billion for 2007-2013. Potential grant recipients include nearly any type of non-profit individual or group, but exclude public authorities. The EC has come to increasingly use its geographic instruments to promote democracy in the widest sense (including, for instance, decentralisation reforms), both directly or indirectly (e.g. via sector support programs that integrate civil society as governance actors).

52With the creation of the new European Endowment for Democracy (EED), it was hoped that this new body would be able to direct aid independently, non-bureaucratically and thus more flexibly and rapidly than the EIDHR. Its greatest comparative (potential) advantage is the provision of non-bureaucratic aid at crucial tipping points for democratic change. In developing the concept of the EED, proponents insisted on the need for this instrument to place a greater emphasis, in comparison with the EIDHR, on domestic drivers of democratic change, including individuals such as bloggers or journalists. Other funding mechanisms include the Instrument for Stability (for fragile/transitional contexts, approximately EUR 2 billion 2007-13) and the Civil Society Facility (EUR 22 million from 2011-13).

53Eastern European countries like Poland are particularly credible when advising others striving for democracy. Their first-hand experience of democratisation provides them with several insights into what works and what does not.

54With these recent activities in democracy promotion, the EU has shown it wants to move out of its conventional ‘comfort zone’. Similarly, Switzerland envisions a role for itself in improving democracy promotion at the local level and will correspondingly alter its approach to democracy to focus primarily on ‘drivers of democratic change’, thus becoming more ‘political’. We have a strong interest in sharing experiences and exchanging knowledge as to what works and what does not with respect to democracy promotion. We see four key areas where Switzerland could contribute, in dialogue with the EU, to building a better-informed practice of democracy promotion.

  • Local ownership of democratic agendas: There are several ways in which this aim (compatible with the Busan agenda) could be achieved. The SDC approaches it primarily through several kinds of democracy assessments, building upon its past success with local governance assessments. A greater focus on the political economy of programs will add to this aim. Similarly, the SDC encourages the extension and refinement of existing support to political institutions. Both the EU and the SDC are keen to upgrade their cooperation with key democratic stakeholders and political institutions, such as parliaments, political parties, electoral commissions and anti-corruption bodies. This too requires a serious political economic analysis.

  • Multi-stakeholder approaches and support of civil society: The SDC promotes a sharing of responsibility between local institutions and civil society (Bolivia, Bhutan, Macedonia, Bosnia and Tanzania). In a manner analogous to the EU, the SDC has moved away from largely instrumental approaches towards broader support for civil society and the establishment of a more mature political and strategic partnership. This requires a greater capacity to understand dynamics within civil society in order to develop genuine support. Civil society should thus be strengthened such that it is sufficiently informed to ask the right questions of the right persons at the right moment.

  • Focus on accountability and participation: The EU and the SDC face a common challenge to push democracy forward and further invest in its constitutive elements. This includes giving greater prominence to both vertical and horizontal accountability and participation. For the purposes of the SDC, participation is understood as a political project intended to develop and sustain more substantive and empowered participation of the citizenry in the political process, such as that typical to a liberal representative or semi-direct democracy. Through its experience in promoting the institutionalization of popular participation and accountability mechanisms in both municipal planning and budgeting and expenditure review processes (Bolivia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Mali, Nepal and Tanzania), the SDC has a wealth of experience in local accountability, particularly in fragile contexts, to contribute to the discussion. Similarly, the EU is also increasingly involved in attempts to push the accountability agenda forward, both through specific governance interventions and more traditional development programs (e.g. sector support to basic service delivery).

  • State legitimacy and decentralisation: The EU and the SDC each agree that legitimate, capable and effective state institutions are key to promoting both democracy and the development agenda. As a result, there is a need to properly articulate development strategies specifically aimed at strengthening democracy. As this is closely related to the taxation system, this is particularly relevant in connection with state services. The SDC can bring in its knowledge of local level dynamics to bear on processes of state building, leveraging its vast experience in mobilizing the democratisation potential of local governments. The SDC sees decentralisation as a political process involving three interlinked dimensions (political, administrative and fiscal) and stresses its interdependent outcomes: domestic accountability, inclusive growth and effective public service delivery (in terms of access, equity and quality). The EU is also interested in adopting a more political approach to supporting decentralisation, enabling to EU to fully realize its instrumental value in bringing about better governance and development outcomes. In recent years, the EU has also explicitly recognized the role of local authorities as full-fledged development actors alongside the central government, thus following a multi-actor approach.


55The current profile of Swiss democracy promotion is strongly guided by our experiences in decentralisation and local governance, but also in the support and capacity building of civil society. As we seek to strengthen the accountability and transparency of the state at the local level. Switzerland’s credibility with respect to most of the issues related to ‘rendering the state more democratic’ is wellestablished. In order to achieve ‘deep democracy’, however, and overcome obstacles to the democratisation process, the SDC must also move towards new frontiers. There are four main elements that I would like to stress in this regard:

  1. We need to comprehensively engage with the political elite and broader public stakeholders both within and beyond the political institutions of a particular country in order to further democracy and development. Democracy requires both horizontal and vertical checks and balances. Important players in this regard include, among others, political parties, the media, independent institutions and civil society. Traditionally, we have preferred to view our interventions as primarily technocratic, relating to capacity building in the technical understanding of electoral commissions. Experience has shown, however, that the field of democracy assistance is inherently political. We believe that due to our experience in local democratic processes and facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue, we are wellsuited to working with political actors.

  2. With respect to actors not yet fully incorporated in (or convinced by) democratisation, we want to engage in a manner typified by an inclusive dialogue on the positive effects of democratisation. This might include emphasizing the potential for increased efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability in development outcomes and heightened political dividends, such as increased legitimacy. This will be done through the appropriate channels, i.e. special partnerships, knowledge-sharing and others. Particularly when dealing with ‘difficult partnerships’, such an approach might be more successful than delaying engagement until a certain level of ‘democracy’ or accountability is already in place.

  3. We will support local governance through the consistent promotion of local and domestic ownership of democratisation processes. The more political the development objectives, the more important the adherence to local ownership becomes. Democracy promotion must thus be built upon the support of local drivers of democracy.

56Given all these goals, a word of caution may be warranted: the more we become involved in this type of support, the more resistance we will face from those in positions of power. We will not be able to focus on domestic drivers of change in a large number of diverse contexts. Our resource limitations will inevitably constrain this kind of sophisticated work, which requires intelligence on the ground, adapted support modalities and political leadership. We are aware that ill-conceived or unprepared attempts to move out of our comfort zone may cause more harm than good.

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1  Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, Speech on the main aspects and basic choices of the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence policy, European Parliament Strasbourg, 11 May 2011, SPEECH/11/236, Event Date: 11/05/2011

2  Local Governance Assessments are used by the SDC’s donors and partners to evaluate the performance of local governance. Depending on the specific tool used for assessment, they can focus either on effectiveness and efficiency; transparency, participation and inclusiveness; or downward accountability. The SDC experience highlights the importance of taking a participatory approach to local governance assessment.

3  Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation, Art. 54, Paragraph 2: ‘The Confederation shall ensure that the independence of Switzerland and its welfare is safeguarded; it shall in particular assist in the alleviation of need and poverty in the world and promote respect for human rights and democracy, the peaceful co-existence of peoples as well as the conservation of natural resources’.

4  Both principles of constitutional recognition emphasize the importance of subnational governments in Switzerland. Under the notion of subsidiarity (art. 5a of the constitution), all activities not explicitly assigned to the higher political levels remain within the scope of cantonal or municipal authorities. Under the notion of autonomy, within the constitutional and legal framework, lower units organize themselves and decide how to accomplish their tasks. Higher levels should thus only take over powers of the lower levels when the lower levels are not able to assume their responsibilities or when an overarching solution is absolutely needed.

5 ‘ ICTs include ‘mobile phones and Internet-based applications such as email, blogs, forums, social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook and Twitter, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) programs such as Skype in Manrique M. and M. Barah (2011) : 1

6  Workshop with IDEA on New Media, October 2012.

7  And in line with the OECD/DAC GOVNET orientations and principles.

8  While in most countries the parliamentarians do not have another profession, in Switzerland, most parliamentarians maintain a career independent of their activities as a politician. Therefore, the Federal Assembly is characterized as a semi-professional parliament. The members of parliament devote an average of 60 per cent of their working hours to their parliamentary duties (sessions, preparation, commission or parliamentary group meetings, etc.). This arrangement holds true for many public tasks that are taken over on a part-time basis. Due to the high workload, there are regular calls for a full-time organization of parliament. A semi-professional system, however, ensures that parliamentarians are close to the people and can incorporate their professional knowledge into their parliamentary work.

9  These examples stem from an e-discussionin the framework of the dlgn learning projecton civil society participation and accountability in local governance processes conducted from 9-19 April 2013.

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Electronic reference

Martin Dahinden, “Democracy Promotion at a Local Level : Experiences, Perspectives and Policy of Swiss International Cooperation”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 4.3 | 2013, Online since 15 September 2014, connection on 27 November 2022. URL:; DOI:

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