Revitalizing Democracy Assistance To Counter Threats To Democratization
The global prospects for democratization and democracy assistance are worse than at any time in several decades due to the culmination of six trends: a backlash against democracy assistance, disillusionment with the Western model of liberal democracy, increasingly resilient authoritarianism, efforts by Russia to undermine democratic institutions and development, China’s alternative development model, and the spread of “digital authoritarian” technology. Democracy assistance has been adapting to these trends, but proponents of democracy are being outpaced by those who seek to undermine democracy or promote alternative models that are less sustainable, just, or equitable.
The backlash against democracy assistance has been evolving since at least the early 2000s when governments began taking more drastic steps to restrict or limit donor support to non-governmental organizations following large-scale citizen protests in Eurasia and the Middle East. Representative democracy is still the most popular form of governance, but disillusionment with political transitions, growing autocratization, and increasingly resilient authoritarianism are making it even more difficult to provide democracy assistance. At the same time, resurgent authoritarian regimes are undermining democratization around the world through disruptive actions, such as disinformation and cyberattacks, and offering alternative modes of development aid that lack accountability, exacerbate corruption, and weaken civil liberties. Furthermore, digitalization, smart cities, surveillance systems, artificial intelligence, and other technological advances are creating new tools and techniques that can accelerate development but can also be misused to repress citizens, stifle free speech, subdue political opponents, and strengthen autocratic rulers.
These trends demonstrate the need for more, not less, attention to democratic development and support for democracy assistance. Inaction could have long-lasting implications for the democratic (or autocratic) trajectory of many developing countries. Donors should revitalize democracy assistance within their overall development policies to effectively address these new challenges and threats to democratization. This will require:
More strategic development and democracy assistance that directly addresses the harm being done to democratization by resurgent authoritarian regimes;
Modernizing democracy assistance to better address the challenges posed by increasing autocratization and digital authoritarian technology;
Improving coordination among donors to more effectively address increasingly complex democratization challenges; and
Expanding efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of Chinese development aid and investments.
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