Democracy, Not For Sale

Many Western activists still think that democratic systems can easily be exported to other countries. They happily pump money into the drafting of new constitutions and the establishment of liberal organizations – and fail to see that even the best democratic toolkit is worthless without a popular spirit of democracy.

Political consultants are already preparing to set sail. They are convinced that their advance is unstoppable and the world is made of two categories of people: past converts, and future buyers of their democratic toolkits. Their salesmen carry on board many suitcases full of goodies: Constitutions and constitutional courts; separation of powers and judicial review; parliamentary regulations and voting systems; ombudsmen and freedom of information laws; anticorruption agencies and human rights covenants, gender quotas and fiscal decentralization formulas. In the last hundred years they have managed to sell many Constitutions; in the last thirty, a great number of elections and voting systems; and in the last twenty alone, 88 ombudsmen, 86 anticorruption agencies and 51 freedom of information acts – soon to be 52. As to the treaties of human rights or good governance, they can count more than one hundred buyers.

The deluge was such that it cancelled any statistical difference between countries that embraced the Western toolkit, and those who did not. But for treaties, constitutional courts, electoral systems, parliamentary and state designs, and anticorruption agencies, the evidence is rather clear: Although the export of democratic institutions was successful, countries which imported them have not so far fared better than those which have not.

The reason for this seems entirely obvious: The toolkit of state-building may well be universal. But once it is sold to locals, it melts into local specificities and real change becomes a hopeless business. The Postrevolutias of the world seem to the foreigner as virgin ground waiting for the colonist’s ‘institutional monocropping.’ But nothing is more treacherous than grounds which appear virgin. Their soil is full of seeds of invisible plants looking for new shapes to expand their old foliage.

It is quite difficult for a foreigner to distinguish among different groups in a foreign country. Often, Western opinions are shared by a small minority that can cause a stir – and leads Western activists into believing that change is embraced by the whole population. The answer to the problems of Postrevolutia is thus found in the people, not in the tools. Most people would only want foreigners to pay for change, and this will identify them as passives: prior to the revolution, our fictional country of Postrevolutia had one of the highest per capita funding from abroad with no discernible effect on its performance. If anything, such money only increased its corruption and inefficiency.

But some locals will ask for something else. They are the ones afraid that their revolution is about to be stolen. In fact, it was already, but fortunately they are not yet aware of this. Few revolutions propel their instigators to the top. More often than not, revolutionaries are the first victims of revolution. This is why no historian in his right mind will recommend a revolution as a way to change things: but they would all admit that the world has always changed only due to revolutionary change, or due to the fear of future revolutions. Empowering the people who want to change the rules of the game, not just reap the benefits, is of course the sensible thing to do until they are strong enough to build a critical mass.

But this, of course, is not what the foreigner does. It sounds so openly political and the illusion still persists, despite decades of evidence, that building modern states, democracies, and the rule of law can be understood as a technological exercise where the best software and superior training will win. There is not one successful example of this in the present world, but still the game goes on.

Read more in this debate: Jon Lomoy, Rosa Brooks, David Chandler.


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