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As a prominent global aid donor, democracy promotion has distinctively shaped U.S. foreign assistance activities. Democracy aid has been a prominent theme of U.S. foreign assistance since the Marshall Plan. More recently, between 2001 and 2015, the U.S. annually disbursed $18 billion on average in democracy and governance aid, which represents (on average) 43% of the total U.S. foreign aid budget (calculated by the author from U.S. Government data and including Department of Defence figures). Nevertheless, the relationship between institutions and aid is complex and disputed. Scholars argue that inclusive and equitable institutions underpin economic growth and catalyse foreign assistance. Yet aid may also feed back on institutions, strengthening, weakening, or consolidating them.

In December 2021, President Biden reflected on this longstanding American interest in supporting democracy and issued “a landmark set of policy and foreign assistance initiatives … [this] represents a significant, targeted expansion of U.S. Government efforts to defend, sustain, and grow democratic resilience”.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and events still unfolding in Ukraine, the U.S is aware of its democratic fragility but hopes to turn the tide back in democracy’s favour. By elevating the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power to a seat on the National Security Council, hosting a Summit for Democracy, and unveiling a host of new, targeted initiatives, the Biden Administration has signalled its commitment to democracy as a foreign policy priority and devoted $400 million, pending Congressional approval. These programs are a promising start to tackling transnational corruption, strengthening independent media, and consolidating democracy. Nevertheless, longstanding strategic interests and coordination between government actors may jeopardize the new initiative.

Consolidating Gains in “Bright Spots” for a Democratic Comeback

On Tuesday, 7 June 2022, Samantha Power delivered a speech on the future of democracy at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.—an event held in partnership by USAID and Freedom House. She acknowledged that headlines and scholars may be pessimistic about the state of democracy in the world, but, citing former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Power promised that democracy is poised for a comeback. There were three takeaways from the speech: the need to “cement progress in democratic bright spots”, confront digital authoritarianism, and tackle the corruption and illicit gains that fund autocrats.

Power began with a focus on bright spots, lamenting that “[n]early every year… a peaceful, pro-democracy, anti-corruption movement emerges…[and] is violently suppressed and cut down.” The typical response of donor countries in such circumstances is to send democracy aid. However, through the new Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, USAID is prepared to offer other varieties of assistance such as debt relief, commodity assistance, technical expertise, and health aid. Through the Initiative and with the approval of Congress, USAID plans to expedite aid to help nascent democrats “quickly deliver” on the promises of democracy, so that bright spots can be consolidated as “enduring beacon[s]” of democracy.

There is some evidence to back this shift. While the effects of aid on institutions generally appear mixed, the empirical literature tends to identify more favourable effects of democracy and governance aid in strengthening institutions and increasing democratization. However, this analysis is somewhat complicated by evidence that transitioning and democratising governments accept more democracy aid and that aid interacts with regime type.

Further, there is evidence that aid can prolong the tenure of autocrats, but aid can also help democrats when it is timed strategically to coincide with key elections. Professor of International Relations Amanda Licht reports that “Aid can significantly shore up the career of new democratic leaders, insulating them from the threat of winning coalition failure by up to 60 percent. But, if arriving late [outside of their initial ‘honeymoon’ period in office], aid can also cause problems for those responsible to a large coalition of supporters.” Perhaps USAID will be able to achieve that sweet spot in timing, but the need for Congressional approval may hinder even their best-timed plans.

Countering Digital Authoritarianism and Protecting Free and Fair Elections

In an age of misinformation, Power also tackled the topic of “digital authoritarianism” and USAID’s new Advancing Digital Democracy Initiative. She addressed rising surveillance of investigative journalists and manipulation of elections through “cyber hacks, false information on social media, and questionable regulations.” Elections have traditionally been a focus of democracy promotion along with civil society and rule-of-law—and Power reiterated a commitment to all three, though with an emphasis in this speech on the importance of free and fair elections globally. This commitment will be supported by the new Defending Democratic Elections fund, from which Power promised “[w]e’ll draw… to help strategically important elections meet these agreed standards throughout the election cycle.”

Election assistance has been a prominent feature of democracy assistance and the most common form of democracy promotion by international organisations. Some scholars have linked such work by international organisations to increased democratisation, while others have criticized donors for conflating elections with democracy—“a myopic strategy for democracy promotion” —which researcher Anna Meyerrose strikingly associates with increased democratic backsliding.

Further, there is already evidence that donors intentionally time the release of aid around elections, with scholars reporting that “disbursement [of World Bank loans] accelerates in the run-up to competitive executive elections if the government is geopolitically aligned with the U.S. but decelerates if the government is not.”

Early in her speech, Power refuted claims of strategic manipulation of aid by the U.S., “We are not using our COVID vaccines to bend poor countries over a barrel or curry favour for votes at the United Nations.” Yet the U.S. still has an entrenched reputation as a strategic donor, with evidence underlying the label. So, while referring to strategic elections, it is unlikely she had this academic label in mind. However, there is still a track record of strategic behaviour by the U.S. as a donor, particularly around the theme of democracy. It remains to be seen whether this fund will be leveraged to support geopolitical allies rather than democrats in need of timely aid.

Combatting Transnational Corruption to Cripple Autocracies

Finally, USAID, alongside the wider US government (and Biden’s KleptoCapture task force), will be incorporating a trans-regional aspect to its anti-corruption work and establishing a “Reporters Mutual” fund to insure and cover legal costs for investigative journalists, who are sued at three times the rate of their non-investigative colleagues. The agency will also be connecting journalists regionally to “piece together vast corruption scandals that span the globe” –all in an effort to “bring corruption out of the shadows as we know it is the Achilles heel for autocrats and authoritarians.”

However, American aid allocation historically has not been sensitive to levels of corruption in recipient countries. American geopolitical interests in certain countries may drive this pattern as well as the ability to deliver aid through non-governmental actors. Nor has recent democracy assistance, of which the US is a key donor, confronted entrenched authoritarianism and risked supporting dissidents; donors have preferred a “tamer” democracy assistance, implemented typically through NGOs.

What to Keep Watching in the Year Ahead

The new initiative brought forth by the Biden administration signals a strong commitment to expose corruption, protect journalists and dissidents, and consolidate democratic gains. However, many of these initiatives hinge on rapid responses and careful targeting and timing. To deliver aid to democratic bright spots, bureaucratic institutions and Congress will need to manoeuvre together more rapidly than usual, as they have done with Ukraine. To this end, USAID may need to develop a flexible framework in conjunction with their Congressional committee partners that can act as a focal point to rally government actors around so that aid can be appropriated and disbursed quickly enough to assist democrats.

Power, like Albright, is hopeful that democracy is poised for a comeback and that the U.S. can help turn the tide of rising autocracy.  When comparing the proposed initiatives to the current empirical literature, there is reason to believe that timely aid and support for beleaguered dissidents and journalists could strengthen democratic trends. At the same time, there is a need to confront what the literature reveals about U.S. behaviour as an aid donor and how those patterns of allocation could jeopardise this push for a global democratic comeback.




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