Troubled or otherwise failed governments continue to yield international headlines for the violence that fills the resulting power struggle in some nations.
Meanwhile, political, military and academic leaders struggle to find ways to implement democracy amid the chaos.
“What many laypeople may intuit but fail to fully grasp is that democracy is the best-known path to peace – both in specific regions and the world in general,” says Julie Fisher, a former program officer at the Kettering Foundation and former scholar in residence at Yale University. “George Bush was right about democracy, but wrong about how to achieve it.”
Democracy is linked to improved economic performance, increased socioeconomic equality, political stability and good governance – and democracies rarely go to war with each other, she says.
“Today, we’re still having the debate as to the best way to create democracy in failed states in the Middle East – should we risk American lives and vast amounts of treasure to save these regions, or should we take the hands-off approach?” she asks. “Exporting democracy militarily hasn’t worked since the United States forcefully imposed it on Japan after World War II. Few Americans have the appetite to gamble with another massive military experiment overseas.”
While exporting democracy has had a low success rate, indigenous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are willing to import democracy offer a promising alternative, she says.
“NGOs that import democracy use ideas and practices that will actually work in their own countries,” says Fisher, author of “Importing Democracy.”
Indigenous democratization NGOs, in collaboration with other nonprofit organizations, are a marker of democratic possibilities. Their democratic agenda, outlined prophetically by notable scholar Robert Dahl, includes:
• Law-based civil liberties: Fisher quotes Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros: “Without pressure from other powerful actors in society, elites have little or no incentive to build legal systems that serve the poor.”In her research, she has found that human-rights advocacy is possible even in autocratic political systems. Although local-level reforms are easier than national ones, democratization NGOs have successfully lobbied to have international human rights laws embedded in national legal codes.
• Loyal opposition: Toleration of political diversity is a necessary condition for developing this practice. Democratization NGOs build a loyal opposition by strengthening the capacities of other organizations to become policy advocates. This is particularly challenging in democracies-to-be because loyal opposition is uncharted territory. Even as a concept, let alone its functioning, loyal opposition requires political maturation on all sides. Although South Africa lacks a large opposition party, South African democratization NGOs were leaders in a broad coalition which successfully sued the government over its failure to prevent mother-child transmission of HIV through antiretroviral drugs.
• Political participation: How do you know whether anyone likes or supports anything? Participation is probably the clearest indicator. Of course, before citizens can show an interest in their own democracy, having the ability to actually participate under safe conditions is necessary. Democratization NGOs based in local South African communities seem to be particularly adept at getting citizens to interact with local governments. Argentine democratization NGOs have pioneered the use of public deliberation to engage citizens in solving local problems.
“In addition, national efforts to nurture a democratic political culture indicate that an international effort to democratize a region is a worthwhile investment,” she says. “But international donors have to do their homework and build on what democratization NGOs are already doing.”