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Foreign Assistance and Democratic Reform

by Francis Adams on Feb 12, 1997

In the weeks leading up to South Africa’s first democratic presidential election, non-governmental organizations fanned out across the countryside to conduct voter education workshops. At about the same time, the Honduran government began a program to root out political corruption, the Philippine government granted greater decision-making authority to local communities, and the Paraguayan government opened budget hearings to the public for the first time in the nation’s history.       

The United States foreign aid program has never been very popular with American taxpayers. A recent survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that two-thirds of respondents felt the program should be either cut back or eliminated altogether.

Limited public support for foreign assistance is not without some justification. Until recently the U.S. foreign aid program had few notable successes to its credit. In many cases, such assistance simply strengthened existing elites in the developing world.

Fortunately, aid administrators seem to have learned from the mistakes of the past. In recent years, USAID has instituted sweeping reforms in how it goes about disbursing foreign assistance, putting democratic governance and public accountability near the top of the foreign aid agenda.

USAID has adopted a fourfold strategy for promoting democratic reform in the developing world. First, foreign aid is directed toward strengthening the rule of law and establishing independent judiciaries, which are necessary to protect citizens from the arbitrary use of state authority and to guarantee equal opportunity under the law.

Second, USAID is working to enhance the competitiveness of local political systems, encouraging the adoption of impartial electoral laws and the improved monitoring of polls that are essential prerequisites for free and fair elections.

Third, foreign aid is being used to strengthen civil societies in the developing world. The decentralization of decision-making and formation of grassroots non-governmental organizations constitute important checks on the abuse of state power.

Lastly, USAID is promoting the greater transparency and accountability of government institutions. Genuine democracy requires public access to government information, civilian control of the military, and independent legislatures.

Clearly changes in the United States foreign assistance program were long overdue. In the past, narrow security or economic interests were sometimes advanced at the expense of the world’s poor. While this strategy may have realized short-term gains for the U.S., it was a long-term recipe for disaster.

USAID’s newfound emphasis on political reform is a welcome improvement. People in the developing world obviously benefit from democratic governance, constitutional guarantees, and respect for human rights. The U.S. also benefits, since democratic regimes are generally more peaceful, make better trading partners, and are more likely to protect natural environments. Foreign aid thus contributes to global security and prosperity. The challenge for USAID today is to build upon its initial successes. Only then will our foreign aid program receive greater support from the American public.


Francis Adams is an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and a writer for the History News Service.