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Providing effective support to “deep democracy”:  how can it realistically be done?

Jean Bossuyt

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1Martin Dahinden’s article on Democracy Promotion at the local level: Experiences, Perspectives and Policy of Swiss International Cooperation comes at the right time. Democracy promotion is not a new topic on the agenda of the international (European) community. Since the democratisation wave of the early 1990s that swept across the developing world, a wide range of donor-supported programmes, mobilising substantial funds, have sought to build institutions and nurture democratic values in hugely diversified country contexts. More recently, the Arab Spring re-emphasised the aspirations of people to human dignity, inclusive development and respect for rights and democratic values. Yet it also painfully illustrated the limitations of Western democracy promotion efforts. Despite much rhetoric, Europe had for many years privileged geopolitical stability over democracy, as reflected in its support to authoritarian régimes. The upheavals in North Africa acted as a wake-up call and led to a quite substantial revision of European policies towards human rights and democracy. Catherine Ashton, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union (EU) went as far as to claim that from now on human rights would be the “silver thread” in Europe’s external action. All this explains the popularity of the concept of “deep democracy” across donor agencies –though the exact meaning of this term remains relatively unclear. Yet there can be little doubt that Western countries are looking at new ways to answer old questions such as:  How can democracy be supported from abroad without imposing models? How can the substance (rather than the form) of democracy be strengthened (e.g. norms, values, behaviour of public officials and citizens)? Who are the drivers of change and how best to support them?

2The article by Martin Dahinden aptly summarises some of the emerging elements of consensus on how to operationalize the concept of “deep democracy”. He stresses the essential complementarity between democracy and development (including job creation) and re-affirms the need to anchor democracy promotion in a home-grown and shared democratic agenda (to be forged over time through inclusive dialogue processes). He rightly argues that effective democracy support requires donors to “move towards new frontiers”; recognise the inherently political nature of democratic reforms; be prepared to think and act politically (using political economy analysis as a navigation tool) and to engage over a longer period of time with a diversity of actors and institutions at various level, with a particular focus on the local level (as the bedrock of democracy, especially in fragile states).

  • 1  EU Communication (September 2012): The roots of democracy and sustainable development: Europe’s en (...)
  • 2  EU Communication (May 2013):  Empowering local authorities in partner countries for enhanced gover (...)

3Much of this resonates with current EU thinking on democracy, human rights and governance. In the last three years, the EU has issued a stream of important ‘Communications’ on the matter. They all emphasize the central place of democracy and governance in EU external action. These include the new cooperation vision spelled out in the 2011 ‘Agenda for Change’, several Communications regarding the partnership with the European Neighbourhood as well as the promise of a more “strategic engagement” with civil society1 and local authorities2. The revised EU budget support guidelines now explicitly link the provision of general budget support to democracy and human rights performance. However, much alike other donor agencies, the EU is struggling to find adequate ways and means to effectively translate these new commitments into practice. The limited progress achieved in the partnership on democratic governance and human rights, organised under the auspices of the ‘Joint Africa-Europe Strategy’ (JAES) is but one illustration of the complexity of the task involved. All this suggests that there is indeed scope for a much deeper dialogue and cooperation between the EU and Swiss cooperation with a view to build a “better informed practice of democracy promotion” (as pleaded for by Dahinden).

4In order to further promote a debate on the “new frontiers” to be explored by external actors willing to engage in domestic democratisation arenas, it seems useful to raise three questions.

  • 3  In his comment on Mr. Dahinden’s article, Olivier Roy equates this type of donor work with “social (...)
  • 4  This brings along the whole question of “incentives” that could be used to promote reforms. Experi (...)

5The first question is straightforward:  Do we know enough to be an effective actor in democracy support and are we ready to apply this knowledge?  The issue of knowledge is seldom put forward in official discourse, yet it is absolutely key as donor agencies abandon the illusion of “exporting models” and rather seek to promote “deep democracy” from within. This means influencing domestic processes, driven by a wide variety of actors through a set of sophisticated, country-tailored interventions3. This is quite a different ballgame altogether. If your knowledge of the domestic democracy arena (in the broad sense) is limited, you may end up doing more harm than good. Mr. Dahinden recognises that the impact of Swiss democracy support was “never systematically evaluated” (with exceptions related to SDC work on decentralisation and in fragile states). The EU also faces this challenge of knowledge. In the past ten years it has done several strategic evaluations regarding good governance (2006), aid channelled through civil society (2008), support to justice reforms (2011) human rights (2011) and decentralisation (2012). It is interesting to note that these major evaluations generate quite similar overall conclusions. They all point to the growing sophistication of EC/EU policy frameworks with regard to governance, democracy and human rights, particularly from 2000 onwards. They confirm the inclusion of civil society as a key actor in development and democratization processes. Yet they also converge that there is a major gap between policy discourse and implementation, with instruments often taking precedence above clear political choices and related intervention strategies. The various evaluations also indicate that EU (donor) support has often been confronted with a ‘deficit of ownership’ especially when the programmes were targeting governments. There is no shortage of ‘supply’ of governance support on the EU side, yet this offer was often matched with a clear ‘demand’ for reform emanating from the other side. The problem is compounded by a number of flaws that can be observed in EU intervention strategies such as the still recurrent use of normative approaches; the reliance on financial incentives schemes that are premised on the assumption that one can “buy reforms”4; and a tendency to equate ownership with the agenda of the central government. These are all valuable lessons, but their effective “uptake” by the aid system is not evident. The same holds true for the use of political economy analysis. The EU has made strides to integrate this critical tool in its overall strategies. Yet its effective application in actual cooperation processes has proven quite challenging. Such a tool is not neutral.  It tends to transform both the role of donor agencies and “the way of doing business”. There is understandable hesitation –if not resistance- to follow this path as it may create tensions with governments and hamper aid disbursement. All this suggests the need to further explore how donors could obtain and use deep knowledge to promote deep democracy.

6The second question relates to a growing concern of many Western donors:  What to do in countries where the space for democracy is shrinking?  While several countries have made significant democratic advances over the past two decades, the overall “health bill” of democracy does not look that rosy. In many developing countries, democratic processes are stagnating, if not losing ground. The backlash is reflected in the growing number of sham democracies, manipulations of constitutions to retain power and the emergence of ‘hybrid regimes’ – systems that combine rhetorical acceptance of democracy and its formal trappings with limited freedoms and authoritarian traits. Many countries are issuing laws that reduce the space for the existence of an autonomous civil society. Elections have become a major trigger of conflicts. On top of this, the central place of democracy is increasingly contested by ‘developmental states’ of an authoritarian nature (e.g. Ethiopia, Rwanda) and by the increasingly dominant presence of other international players (e.g. the BRICS or Gulf States) that do not share the same democracy/human rights agenda. What does all this mean for Western democracy promotion efforts? It could be argued that Europe should continue to put democracy and human at the centre of its external action, both for its instrumental value (in terms of ensuring inclusive development, justice and an effective management of global challenges) and as a core value underpinning the EU construction. It can claim to do so with some legitimacy as across the world people also mobilise for getting better governance systems. The Arab Spring is the latest example of this universal aspiration to human dignity, equity and democratic and accountable governance. Yet while the ultimate destination may remain the same (democracy as a global public good), Western actors seem in dire need of much more realistic, political savvy and coherent implementation strategies. That will be crucial challenge in the next years. Just two examples to quickly illustrate this point.  The EU has committed itself to foster an “enabling environment” for civil society. Yet how will this be concretely done in countries that issue highly restrictive laws or systematically harass civil society activists? What leverage has the EU to intervene? What actions could it usefully undertake? The second example requires an even deeper exercise of soul-searching. How credible can the EU be in democracy promotion? The lack of coherence and use of double standards has been widely identified as the Achillesheel of Western democracy promotion efforts. What is the real space for changing this fundamental flaw in the near future? Some argue that the chances look grim. The current ‘scramble’ for markets and resources (under the banner of new economic diplomacy) may further reduce EU policy coherence and erode the credibility of our democratic discourse.

7The third question relates to the title of Mr. Dahinden’s article:  How can the local level be more structurally integrated in development and democratisation processes? European policy makers are increasingly aware that the action terrain of “deep democracy” is ‘local’ as much as it is national. This is even more the case for fragile states, where the challenge is often to first build the local foundations of effective state-society relations. The local level provides a potentially conducive space for people to interact directly with state authorities, engage in collective action, jointly define local development priorities, forge new governance practices (such as participatory budgeting) and cultivate citizenship. The local level is also where development outcomes materialize. Sound national policies are a necessary but not sufficient condition to trigger development. In order to implement national or sector policies, a strong link with the local level is crucial. Without the effective participation of local stakeholders the risk is high that national policies will not land on fertile soil. In this context, it should be remembered that the Tunisian revolt did not start in the capital but in a secondary town and region that had been neglected in social and economic terms. Also here the challenge will be to make a qualitative jump forward in overall donor intervention strategies to unlock this (largely dormant) local potential. The task at hand is to properly frame the local dimension of democratisation processes; to support multi-actor dialogue on what this local democracy agenda entails in a particular context; to encourage systematic cooperation between different levels of governance; and to ensure that all donor interventions (e.g. in sectors) consistently incorporate the local dimension (including the role of local authorities as elected democratic bodies). This jump forward could be done by capitalizing on a wide range of (documented) experiences with local development, decentralisation and local governance (including lessons learnt by SDC who has been very active in this field). There are huge opportunities in many countries to build alliances with local actors, who are struggling to be heard and to be take seriously in policy processes and cooperation efforts.

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1  EU Communication (September 2012): The roots of democracy and sustainable development: Europe’s engagement with Civil Society in external action. COM (2012), 492, final.

2  EU Communication (May 2013):  Empowering local authorities in partner countries for enhanced governance and more effective development outcomes.  COM (2013), 280 final.

3  In his comment on Mr. Dahinden’s article, Olivier Roy equates this type of donor work with “social engineering”.

4  This brings along the whole question of “incentives” that could be used to promote reforms. Experience so far has been sobering, as illustrated by the EU Governance Facility (2006-2011) whose substantial Incentive Tranche (2.7 billion Euro) failed to achieve any meaningful impact. It remains to be seen whether the new incentive approach, based on the “more-for more” principle”, now adopted by the EU in the European Neighbourhood, will be more successful.

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Cite this article

Electronic reference

Jean Bossuyt, « Providing effective support to “deep democracy”:  how can it realistically be done? », International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 4.3 | 2013, Online since 20 February 2014, connection on 05 June 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Jean Bossuyt

Head of Strategy, EU External Action Programmeof the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM)

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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