USAID: Democracy Promotion Is in Our National Interest

On December 17, the Development Assistance and Governance Initiative at Brookings hosted an event on the implications of U.S. Agency for International Development’s new strategy for development—the “Strategy on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance“—as well as the contours of global accountability efforts. USAID Associate Administrator Mark Feierstein provided remarks on how U.S. foreign assistance programs are addressing the issues of transparency, accountability, and the rule of law worldwide. A panel discussion followed.

Senior Fellow Ted Piccone, acting vice president and director of Foreign Policy at Brookings, opened the conversation by noting that the problem of democracy, governance, human rights and accountability “is a very serious one” …

… particularly for someone like me who comes at it more from a legal background and from a foreign policy background [and who] has always considered it a bit of an outlier in how it gets integrated into the foreign policy agenda. But increasingly it’s become more and more important to the development agenda and I think that’s why we’re here today to hear from our speakers and to consider the question of how issues of democratic accountability, participation, human rights becomes much more integrated, becomes elevated as a priority for USAID’s strategy going forward.

In his keynote address, Associate Administrator Mark Feierstein reflected on coming to Washington, DC in 1987 to work for NDI, the National Democratic Institute, on democracy promotion issues. “The democracy promotion business was very much in its infancy,” he said, and

… things seemed easy in a way, at least in retrospect. We operated in some pretty favorable settings, like Chile. The third wave of democracy was building momentum, had yet to crest. We thought that democracy’s advance would just continue and spread across the world easily. We were really at the end of history, some said. And … a quarter century later much has changed. A lot of it is quite positive. Democracy has, in fact, reached regions of the world in countries that it had not reached back then. There’s a strong bi-partisan consensus in favor of democracy promotion both for moral reasons and because it’s in our national interest. The effort is vastly better resourced. We all have much more experience and knowledge and a better sense of what works and what doesn’t.  And of course we have new technologies to take advantage of.

Still, he noted, on the downside, that “the job seems a lot harder” in many ways, due to less hospitable environments and backsliding in a number of countries and regions. Some approaches seem less effective today, so, Feierstein explained, “within USAID we realized that it was time to craft a new strategy” to replace the original one developed in the early 1990s. He mentioned three new factors: how to respond to opportunities presented by the Arab Awakening;  forestalling the reverse wave, or the democratic recession; and how to take advantage of the global communications revolution.

He also noted the new threats to democracy, such as crime, corruption, conflict, social inclusion, extreme poverty, and vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters.

“We seek to make clear” in the new strategy, Feierstein said, “that USAID will continue to support the promotion of human rights, the protection of citizens from the violation of these rights, and the prevention of future abuses.”

The panel discussion was moderated by Senior Fellow George Ingram of DAGI and included Warren Krafchik, director of International Budget Partnership at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Sarah Mendelson, USAID’s deputy assistant administrator; and David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Event audio is now available.

Colleen Lineweaver contributed to this post.