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Aid and Democratisation

Bringing Politics Back In

Comments on Martin Dahinden’s “Democracy Promotion at a Local Level”
Didier Péclard

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1Martin Dahinden’s article 'Democracy Promotion at a Local Level' is a welcome and timely contribution to on-going debates about the meaning of democratisation and external support to democracy. Since the end of the Cold War and with the rise of the ‘good governance’ agenda, the dominant approach to democracy promotion within multinational institutions as well as bilateral donor agencies has been a rather normative and technocratic one. The role of the West in accompanying transition from autocratic regimes to democracy was restricted to the export of ‘its’ model of liberal democracy, and supporting the development of democratic governance was seen as a matter of finding the right tools needed to ‘fix’ malfunctioning state institutions.

2This technocratic approach is based on a deep-rooted belief in the power of social engineering, i.e. the idea that political institutions such as accountable and functioning states can be engineered, crafted, constructed through outside intervention. It translates into concentrating on what one could call the ‘hardware’ of democracy (elections, constitutions, security sector reform, etc.) to the detriment of its ‘software’, i.e. the long-term social construction of legitimacy through struggles, negotiations and trade-offs taking place within state-society relations. However, as Martin Dahinden argues, in opposition to technocratic approaches, democratisation is “inherently political” because it is “a process that by definition changes the power dynamics within a society”, and so is democracy promotion. But what exactly does it mean to recognise the ‘inherently political’ nature of democracy promotion? What kind of implications does this have for development policies and practices? What are the main challenges linked to this? The present short commentary discusses some of the most important elements of this political approach and highlights some challenges as well as possible inconsistencies between discourse and practice.

3The first issue in this context concerns processes of social and political change. How does democratic change happen? Are there common traits across the large historical diversity of transition from autocratic rule to democracy, or is the history of each and every transition inherently idiosyncratic and therefore hardly replicable? While this issue has, logically, always been at the core of democracy promotion, it has been of particular political salience since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

4Firstly, it is the overthrow of long-established authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya which brought the very issue of democratisation back onto the agenda of the international community. Very present in the first years following the end of the Cold War, the issue of democratisation as a process of “change in the power dynamics within a society” had indeed somewhat subsided in the course of the following two decades with the rise of technocratic perspectives – expressed by the good governance agenda and the gradual shift towards results-oriented policy thinking such as the Millennium Development Goals.

5Secondly, the Arab Spring has called renewed attention to the issue of transition towards democracy, and in particular to the transitology paradigm. Developed in the immediate post-Cold War era, the paradigm aimed to create a universal theory of democratic change beyond historical and social diversity. It rests on the idea that democratisation happens because of decisions taken by the elite rather than for structural reasons, and that it is a gradual process with clearly distinguishable phases. One of the central lessons of the Arab Spring has been that transnational links, both material and symbolic, do play an important role in the diffusion of revolutionary ideas, in the passage from social discontentment to political upheaval and mass demonstration, as well as in getting attention, however ambiguous, from the international community. However, three years after the beginning of the Arab Spring, it is clear that the basic assumption of the transitology paradigm, namely the idea that democratic change follows a more or less linear process, is flawed. Possible scenarios in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, among others, vary from democratic consolidation to the return of authoritarian rule, conservative modernization, the entrenchment of autocratic regimes as well as outright civil war.

6Social and political change, in other words, is a deeply unpredictable, contradictory and undetermined process. Whatever the importance of transnational dynamics and the international context, change (democratic or other) is first and foremost the result of internal historical dynamics, and it has to be apprehended as such. This has two main implications. The first is straightforward and seems to be well established now within the donor community (even if its concrete implementation continues to be problematic): local historical, political and social context matters and it should be at the centre of any democracy promotion or development project, not ready-made toolbox approaches. The second is more complex and has to do with local perceptions of political legitimacy. Legitimacy is at the heart of democracy promotion. To put it in Dahinden’s words, “legitimate, capable and effective state institutions are key to promoting both democracy and the development agenda”. The article rightly distinguishes between the “output side of government legitimacy, i.e. government capability and performance in delivering essential services to citizens” and the “input side of government legitimacy, i.e. […] how and to what extent citizens are able to influence decision-making”. It also argues that so far the focus has been on output legitimacy, and that this should be balanced with a deeper commitment to input legitimacy.

7This is no doubt an important step towards a more political and less technical perspective on democracy promotion, since it places state-society relations at the centre. The issue of legitimacy, however, is broader and more complex. In so-called fragile contexts, public authority is not exercised by state actors alone. Many non-state actors such as traditional authorities, religious leaders, local and international NGOs, community based organisations, private companies, vigilante groups and armed movements perform state-like functions. Statehood, in other words, is the product of a complex web of relations, negotiations and trade-offs between formal and visible institutions of the state on the one hand and other ‘performers’ of public authority on the other. The challenge in such contexts is that the “legitimate, capable and effective state institutions”, upon which democratic rule and development can be built, are extremely diverse and by far not restricted to the confines of the ‘official’ state. It is therefore crucial to understand how legitimacy is constructed and infused with social meaning locally, and who the potential bearers (Träger in the Weberian sense) of legitimacy are. Democracy in its broadest sense (i.e. as a set of values, of political practices, institutions and rights) is by far not the only source of legitimacy at the local level and it has to compete with other, alternative sources. In fact, in many contexts of transition from authoritarian rule as well as in the aftermath of a violent conflict, institutions that are the product of programmes of democratic reforms, such as local representatives of the central state (parliaments and other locally elected bodies, decentralised government agencies) are not necessarily perceived by local populations as more legitimate than, for instance, former armed movements, religious leaders and associations, traditional chiefs and authorities, or local businessmen associations. Besides, memories of the state are often linked, especially in formerly colonised countries and in conflict-affected areas, with stories of abuse, coercion, and violence rather than with human rights and democratic practices. This does not mean, as ‘culturalist’ thinkers have argued, that local, ‘traditional’ structures are per se better and more legitimate than ‘modern’ ones and that traditional societies and power structures should be protected from the onslaught of the modern state. As social historians of the colonial world have shown, traditions are always partly ‘invented’. Many so-called traditional chiefs in present-day Africa for instance have in fact colonial origins and many have been instrumentalised by colonial as well as postcolonial regimes. This means, however, that democracy is not only ‘deep’. It is also broad and multifaceted in the range of actors that its promotion potentially concerns.

8This raises two sets of questions for democracy promotion. (1) To what extent should social and political institutions that lay beyond the perimeter of the democratic state as defined by Western donors but are seen as legitimate locally be integrated into the democratisation agenda? (2) Can institutions that do not work according to Western democratic norms but reflect historically developed values of legitimate rule contribute to democracy promotion? In other words, and echoing a comment made in this debate by Olivier Roy, does it (only) take democrats to build democracy, or can democratic change also be the (unintended) consequence of the role played in transition processes by the adversaries and even outspoken enemies of democracy? There is of course no easy and one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, but they should be taken on board when reflecting about the links between legitimacy, democracy and development.

9The second issue concerns the local. Martin Dahinden’s article stresses the importance of the local in democracy promotion and brings forward the very rich expertise that SDC has acquired in this field over the past decades. He concludes that “democracy promotion must […] be built upon the support of local drivers of democracy”. This is no doubt important and a healthy antidote to top down approaches limited to the national level, which run the risk of perpetuating social and political inequalities within a country. However, ‘the local’ as apprehended by development actors is a category that is more ambiguous than it may seem at first sight and not without contradictions either. The promotion of ‘good governance’ by development agencies through local actors and power structures, while based on a genuine concern for more accountability and citizen participation in (state) politics at local level, is often also rooted in a deep distrust for the state in developing countries, considered as inefficient, corrupt and illegitimate. This distrust is in line with neo-liberal development orthodoxies of the 1980s and 1990s based on economic laissez-faire and efforts at reducing state apparatuses to their bare minimum. Development projects, by relying heavily on what J.-P. Olivier de Sardan and T. Bierschenk have called ‘local development brokers’, resulted not only in the promotion of alternative power structures that by-passed the state, thereby eventually contributing to further weakening it, de-legitimising it and rendering it more inefficient, but also in the development of new networks of clientelism and local neo-patrimonial structures. One of the challenges of a renewed political perspective of the promotion of democracy through local power structures therefore is to work on the links between state and society and on the possible articulation of the different sources and forms of public authority (state and non-state), rather than considering them as two distinct and competing spheres.

10The local level is often perceived as inherently distinct from the national, international or global levels. This is misleading on two accounts. Firstly, many local actors are well connected through personal, family or other ties to the national, as well as to the international levels, as is the case for the development brokers mentioned above. The local therefore should not be conceived in isolation from other spheres. Secondly, ‘the local’ as the terrain of democracy promotion can easily be idealised if not romanticised, and local actors and institutions considered as inherently good, legitimate, and accountable because they are, as if ‘by nature’, closer to the needs and interests of the people. Local actors are extremely diverse and ‘the local’ is, like any polity, fraught with social and political tensions and competitions, which interventions in the name of development and democracy can (re-)ignite rather than contribute to solving. A good case in point here is the return of discourses of ‘autochthony’ in Africa, which can be, partly at least, traced back to changes in the local power structures induced by democratisation and decentralisation policies. Decentralisation, and local elections in particular, have imbued local constituencies with a new political meaning, raising the stakes of local political competition. And in cases where long-term residents have been outvoted by newly arrived immigrants, as in Douala, Cameroon in the mid-1990s, it has been one of the bedrocks for the return to claims of autochthony and to exclusionist visions and policies of citizenship.

11The third and final issue concerns time. As the article points out, echoing the New Deal for engagement in fragile states signed in November 2011 in Busan, state-building is a long-term process which “requires a long-term commitment”. This point is by now well-established within policy circles and implementing agencies. It is also in line with the ‘re-politicised’ perspective on democracy promotion that Martin Dahinden’s article advocates. Indeed, moving from a focus on the ‘hardware’ of democracy to the ‘software’ of state formation processes is only possible if we take a long-term perspective. Discourses and practices of development, however, as well as other spheres of international engagement such as peacebuilding, are increasingly dominated and constrained by a results-oriented mind-set. In part because of the very concrete need for development agencies to legitimise in their home countries the programmes they implement abroad, in part as a result of a broader Zeitgeist. The necessity to show measurable results has become increasingly important. The Millennium Development Goals, with their focus on the measurability of indicators as the ‘proof’ of a country’s progress towards development, are perhaps the most symptomatic expression of this trend. The problem is that there are many potential tensions and contradictions between the short-term logic and the impatient character of results-orientation on the one hand, and long-term commitment to democracy promotion on the other. Whether the inclusion of democracy as one of the goals of the post-2015 agenda, which the article advocates and SDC as an institution supports, will be enough to solve this problem is, at best, an open question. This does not, however, take anything away from the article’s main contribution, namely that it is crucial to ‘bring politics back in’ democracy promotion.

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Electronic reference

Didier Péclard, “Bringing Politics Back In”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 4.3 | 2013, Online since 05 June 2014, connection on 18 January 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Didier Péclard

Senior researcher & Head of the Statehood and Conflict Programme, swisspeace; Lecturer, University of Basel

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