MATIC, by Jean AbiNader (Washington, DC, Jan. 24, 2013) — As I was thinking about the past week’s events in Mali and Algeria, the oft-mentioned need for an integrated development strategy for building the future of the Maghreb came into sharper focus.The Center for American Progress and the Center for Strategic and International Studies tackled a complex dimension of this issue in their joint statement supporting democracy and governance programs in an era of shrinking budgets.
The “Statement of Principles: Democracy, Democratic Governance, and Transparent Institutions in the American Interest” was signed by bipartisan senior level policy experts concerned that democracy and governance will be given short shrift in coming budget talks.
I found myself nodding in agreement at many of their insights and recommendations, particularly distinguishing between democracy as “a government characterized by an inclusive and meaningful competition for political power, a high level of political participation among citizens, and political and civil freedom;” and “good governance…as the mechanisms by which a country’s economic, political, and social authority is apportioned and exercised, and the institutions available to citizens to express their opinions, exercise their rights, and fulfill their obligations.”
I quote this to highlight that tensions can emerge between these constructs when applied to the MENA and Sahel regions.
Case in point…the Arab world is the only region singled out at length in the statement, emphasizing the goal of bringing Arab countries into the democratic mainstream through consistent and long term external investments in capacity building.
Yet there is a conundrum in that Arab countries are certainly not monolithic. Their governments range along a continuum of democratic forms as Freedom House makes clear in its annual review. And Arab governments are having difficulties adjusting to accommodating the new calculus in the political power equation – public opinion – particularly since political parties are often suspect partners in the governing process.
This is where the statement makes a real contribution to framing America’s role strategically. “Democracy is a process, not an event. The United States needs to take a longer view of these investments…The long-term challenge is to help fledging democracies deliver better lives for their citizens, thereby building support for democratic governance that prevents alternatives from gaining ground.”
In MENA countries, from the evolving democracy in Morocco through the transforming states in North Africa and the Levant, an ideal strategic perspective for impacting positive change suggests that local institutions, respecting international norms, should be primary vehicles for change. Yet, aside from vibrant civil societies in Morocco and Lebanon, emerging civil societies in Egypt and Tunisia, and hopeful movements elsewhere, there are few institutions rooted locally that are imbued with the democratic values of human rights, accountable governance, rule of law, protection of minorities, and the other hallmarks of maturing free societies.
Mali’s failed democratic experiment, reminds me of Tehran from 1976-1978 when the Shah seemed omnipotent and Iranian society was rapidly being transformed into a pale reflection of the West. I believe that the failure of democracy in Iran was rooted in the enormous identity conflict that divided its society and diminished its core values.
So when we talk about bringing democracy to Africa or elsewhere, let’s take another bit of wisdom from the statement, “In the long run, the policy of the United States should be to support democratic governance and strengthen those institutions that support economic and political liberty.”
Rather than plunge headlong into “democracy promotion” in Mali and throughout the region, focus foreign assistance on the tangibles—improving basic services, generating mechanisms for economic opportunities and jobs, encouraging rule of law and transparency through institutions grounded in international norms, and free people from fears of speaking out and associating opening to improve their countries.
As in Singapore and South Korea, democracy rooted in a well-functioning society has a higher probability of competent governance than autocratic states. Enabling countries to reach their potential through learning democracy via responsive government and civil society transactions will foster the consensus that gives democracy a strong chance to succeed.
As the statement points out, “…the volatile and complex changes in the Middle East present the United States with challenges and opportunities to help shape a freer world—and a freer world directly benefits our own security, prosperity, and international standing.” It is more than an investment in their future; it is an investment in ours.