I Know That I Know Nothing

After the Arab Spring, Western nations rushed to aid the newly empowered revolutionaries. But even a sincere commitment cannot compensate for a lack of knowledge. Aid without understanding is an obstacle rather than a catalyst of democratic change.

We don’t know much. If there’s any single lesson to be drawn from the last three decades of international efforts to assist with post-conflict reconstruction and democratic transitions, that should probably top the list.

We rush in to complex situations with reckless offers of complex, expensive solutions. We rarely wait to make sure we understand the political, cultural, and economic dynamics of the society we’re dealing with. We offer platitudes about inclusion and local ownership, but are quick to designate and cling to our favorite indigenous interlocutors, often selected more because they tell us what we like to hear (at first anyway) than because they represent anyone in particular. We start by overspending, and our presence and aid distorts local economies, fueling corruption and incentivizing talented locals to abandon other jobs and serve instead as our interpreters or drivers. We micromanage, eagerly urging the wholesale revisions of institutions and legal codes in an effort to make them look more like our own. And then, inevitably, we — or our donors and constituents back home — get bored. Funding slows to a trickle. Our projects peter out. Eventually we leave, and it’s often far from clear what good we’ve done.

This isn’t an argument for abandoning Postrevolutia to its fate. International engagement and assistance are not pointless or harmful; there’s no question that it can play a vital role in preventing humanitarian catastrophe and encouraging peaceful reform. But we do need to learn to move more slowly, and act more humbly. If the international community wants to help Postrevolutia peacefully transition to democracy, it’s possible that the best thing we can do in the initial phase is just get out of the way.

If Postrevolutia experiences an urgent humanitarian crisis, we should help with food, shelter, and and medical assistance. If genocidal violence breaks out, the international community will need to act. But absent of those contingencies, the international community should take a big step back, giving the Postrevolutian population some time to sort things out on their own. If major Western powers propped up Postrevolutia’s now-overthrown dictator, the international community’s credibility with ordinary Postrevolutians is unlikely to be high in any case. As a result, foreign “assistance” may not be welcome, and may taint those we seek to support.

The international community should remain humble and not try to do too much too soon. Durable change takes a long time: the democratic institutions of stable Western states took hundreds of years (and too many bloody wars) to develop. At best, sustainable reforms takes decades.

The World Bank’s 2011 Report on Conflict, Security and Development offers some sobering numbers. Looking at states that have undergone significant institutional transformations in the 20th century, it finds that the twenty fastest reformers took an average of 27 years to meaningfully control corruption, 36 years to attain substantial government effectiveness, 17 years to reduce the military’s role in politics to acceptable levels, and 41 years to achieve significant progress on core rule of law indicators.

It’s not just that durable reforms take time, rushed reform can overwhelm fragile institutions. For instance, pushing complex new legal codes on a society with little tradition of formal legal institutions may do more harm than good. The nature and pace of reform needs to be suited to Postrevolutia’s capacities and needs. The biggest mistake the international community can make is letting the perfect become the enemy of the “good enough.”

Read more in this debate: Jon Lomoy, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, David Chandler.

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