How Politics Can Improve Democracies in the Developing World

May 23, 2013 By Zach Silberman

This week saw another U.S. Agency for International Development mission closed abruptly at the request of the host country, this time in Bolivia after last September’s closure in Russia. While USAID is seeking to be more selective in where it commits resources around the world, it has had no choice but to express its “deep regret” when being told to leave.  As Paige Alexander, USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Europe and Eurasia, said last September after Russia asked USAID to close shop, “We have always been doing this from the American people to the Russian people.  And that’s who is losing out.”

Bolivia and Russia highlight the challenges facing development assistance in today’s world, when the governments in some countries see foreign assistance is meddling in their internal affairs.  Unfortunately, it’s often not just USAID that is being targeted, but local civil society actors in these countries that also face these repressive policies as part of a broader pattern of domestic control.


USAID helped Bolivian quinoa farmers gain access to improved equipment resulting in higher incomes for the farmers and their families, and a sustainable future.

Why is this happening now?  In the past development agencies often said they avoided anything to do with politics, but concerns about corruption and transparency led to a shift toward promoting good governance and accountability.  Bolivia shows that this can be hard.  USAID had already shut down its democracy and governance programs in country several years ago and were only working in what were thought to be uncontroversial areas like health and environmental conservation.  In Russia, much of USAID’s work focused on global health and AIDS treatment.

Does this mean aid agencies should pull back from their work in governance?  No, according to Thomas Carothers and Diane De Gramont.   In their recent book, they say though that aid must be “politically engaged and politically smart,” that we look at “how all aid programs in a country fit into and affect the broader political environment.”

Our commitment to promoting freedom and democracy and protecting human rights is at the heart of America’s global leadership, and it is a top principle of the State Department’s work to “create a more secure, stable, and prosperous global arena in which the United States can advance its national interests.”  Take the Marshall Plan.  In his famous commencement address at Harvard in 1947, George Marshall said “the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.”

The heart of this strategy is that, after winning the war in Europe, the United States saw a national interest in helping European countries recover by helping their economies, which “provided markets for American goods [and] created reliable trading partners,” which in turn created jobs at home.  The Marshall Plan was the first example of a return on investment of our foreign assistance, particularly when you look at how far Germany (our 5th largest trading partner to date) has come since the end of the war.  From America’s post-war rebuilding efforts in Japan, Europe, and South Korea, to supporting Colombia’s “democratic pillars” as a part of Plan Colombia, and more, foreign assistance has bolstered democratic governments, while also strengthening our own economy through job creation.

Or look at Liberia.  Since 2003, the United States has provided assistance and engaged with Liberia on numerous programs in order to lift that country from a violent civil war by focusing on improving democratic processes and governance. One of those programs is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, which focuses on a results-oriented approach to ensure that Liberia is following through with its commitments to good governance, investment in its citizens, and economic freedom.  Right now, Liberia is an example of democracy in Africa and how using development to focus on improving democratic processes can reap benefits.  

Carothers and DeGramont say the insight that governance is at the key to effective development “is the most important advance in the overall aid paradigm in decades.”  While it may be discouraging to see countries suspend our engagement, it is not a reason for America to pull back from the world.  Helping promote transparency and accountability is a prime example of the values that Americans hold dear and believe creates a safer world.  By using our effective tools of global engagement, America can support positive change that will advance our interests and help out our friends and partners.