Aid, Political Conditionality, and Other International Efforts to Support Democracy in Africa
Abstract and Keywords
Support for democracy, human rights, and good governance reforms in Africa has become a prominent objective in engagement by European Union (EU) institutions, EU member states, and the United States with African countries since the early 1990s. Western actors have gradually increased democracy aid, used sanctions, and developed a range of other instruments to support political reforms on the continent. Academic research has analyzed the “substance” and “content” of political reforms that Western actors seek to promote, what instruments they use, and how effective these instruments are in different political contexts. This body of work comes to mixed conclusions as to whether and under what conditions external support has contributed to democratic reforms in African countries between 1990 and 2015. Yet, evidence suggests that external democracy support has made some positive contributions and has been more effective in Africa compared to other regions. However, after a period of 25 years during which democracy support gradually became an important element in the United States’ and European cooperation with African countries, this agenda is now under considerable pressure. Domestic challenges to democracy within Europe and the United States, domestic dynamics in African countries, and the rise of China as an alternative political model make it difficult for European and other external actors to contribute to political reforms on the continent. In this new era of uncertainty, there are three main areas to which policymakers as well as academic research should pay more attention. First, more debate is needed how the contestation of democratic norms in Europe and the United States affects not only the legitimacy but also the decision-making processes on democracy support. Second, more research is needed how urbanization, demographic change and digitalization and their combined effects influence political reforms in Africa and what implications emerge for democracy support. Finally, how China’s more proactive and assertive foreign policy will affect democracy support in Africa is an area that policy-makers and researchers should follow closely.
Support for democracy, human rights, and good governance reforms has become an increasingly prominent objective in the engagement of the European Union (EU) institutions, EU member states, and the United States with African countries since the early 1990s. Western actors have gradually increased democracy aid, used sanctions, and developed a range of other instruments to support political reforms on the continent. External democracy support in Africa has an intrinsic motivation and a clear normative dimension. Civil and political rights are part of individual human freedom (Sen, 1999), and Western actors see it as their moral obligation to advance these rights. At the same time, external democracy support also hinges on more instrumental arguments. Democracies trade more with other democracies and cooperate more easily with them in international organizations (Bättig & Bernauer, 2009). Democracies also provide better services to their citizens. Even though this argument has been contested in the light of the socioeconomic success of countries such as China, Vietnam, and Rwanda, academic work still largely supports it. Democracies—regardless of their level of economic development—are found to provide more public goods as compared to authoritarian regimes (Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson, & Morrow, 2003; Deacon, 2009; Lake & Baums, 2001). In Africa, democracy is positively associated with economic growth, particularly in those African countries that remained democratic for longer periods (Masaki & van de Walle, 2014).
Despite the fact that the effectiveness of external democracy support has often been questioned, it has become an integral part in Western actors’ cooperation with African countries since the early 1990s. Yet, with changing domestic contexts in African countries and various crises in the West, democracy support has come under severe pressure in the past few years. Several trends, such as the EU’s response to the migrant and refugee flows, or illiberal reforms in European countries and the United States, make it more difficult for Western countries to credibly engage with African actors on political reforms. Moreover, policymakers question whether democracy support is the right thing to do. As the Arab spring has led to political and humanitarian crises, instability, and extremism in North Africa and the Middle East, some policymakers and observers point out that the process of political opening up goes hand in hand with further destabilization and may therefore make it too risky to support. The domestic context in African countries and, in particular, the stabilization of party-based regimes also makes it more challenging to support democratic reforms. Finally, the international context for supporting democracy and human rights has clearly become more difficult. Authoritarian powers such as China are attempting to legitimize the autocratic model internationally and are competing with European actors for political influence in Africa. With the Trump presidency, it is unclear whether the United States will continue to support democracy and human rights in Africa (and elsewhere).
About 25 years after democracy and human rights support emerged as a central element in Western actors’ engagement with Africa (and beyond), the agenda is therefore called into question. In this context, the objective of this article is to review how the instruments and strategies of external democracy support in Africa have evolved over time and what we know about the effectiveness of democracy support between 1990 and 2015. The article then proceeds to discuss how recent domestic developments within Africa and the changing international context impact Western democracy support. Building on these empirical trends, the article highlights avenues for future research on democracy support in Africa. The article applies a broad definition of democracy support that includes all actions by external actors that aim at supporting democratic reforms in African countries, ranging from democracy aid, political dialogue, and aid selectivity to political conditionality or sanctions.
Democracy Support in Africa Between 1990 and 2015: A Normative Agenda Largely Unchallenged
Support for democracy and human rights became part of Western actors’ engagement with African countries in the early 1990s, when the international context as well as the political dynamics in African societies were rather favorable for external democracy support. After the end of the Cold War, the third wave of democratization brought political openings and regime changes in many African countries, making it easier for external actors to support and enhance ongoing reform dynamics. Moreover, the fall of the Soviet Union left liberal democracy as the “final form of human government” (Fukuyama, 2006). During the 1990s, the EU, EU member states, the United States, and Canada then began to develop democracy aid projects and started to use sanctions against fundamental human rights violations or coups d’états in African countries (Crawford, 2001). During the 1990s, however, the volume of democracy aid in absolute terms and as a share of total aid was comparatively small and concentrated on election support. Few democracy-support instruments beyond democracy aid and sanctions existed. Moreover, democracy support was not uncontested among Western actors nor consistently applied. Security concerns regularly trumped considerations for democracy, as documented in the cases of Kenya or Uganda (Olsen, 1998). France, in particular, shielded its former colonies from outside pressure (Emmanuel, 2010).
The turn of the century and the rise of the international aid effectiveness agenda brought a qualitative and quantitative shift in Western actors’ democracy support in Africa. Support for democracy, human rights, and good governance were more broadly mainstreamed in development policy, as donors viewed “good governance” more strongly as a precondition for the effectiveness of development aid and conducive to long-term sustainable development. Moreover, the international aid effectiveness agenda, along with the emergence of poverty-reduction strategy papers, the rise in donor coordination forums, and new aid modalities such as sector-wide approaches or budget support brought new opportunities for external actors in placing democracy, human rights, and good governance reforms more strongly on the agenda when engaging with African governments.
Since the early 2000s, the EU institutions, EU member states, and the United States have mostly relied on a positive approach that seeks to promote democracy, human rights, and good governance through political dialogue, democracy aid, and positive conditionality rather than sanctions and punitive measures. The EU and the United States strengthened their political dialogue with African countries. The political dialogue of the EU and EU member states is conducted under Article 8 of the Cotonou Agreement, which governs the EU’s relations with African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) countries. Since the mid-2000s, the EU has made efforts to regularly conduct dialogue with almost all sub-Saharan African countries. Even if the impact of the dialogue is difficult to measure and is perceived by some governments purely as a matter of duty, it provides an opportunity to address human rights violations and breaches of democratic principles.
According to statistics from the OECD Development Assistance Committee (2018), the EU institutions and some EU member states have gradually increased the volume of democracy aid in absolute and relative terms.1 Among EU member states, most democracy aid to Africa is provided by Germany, the United Kingdom (U.K.), and Sweden. By contrast, France is one of the largest EU donors (together with Germany and the U.K.), but has used a marginal amount of its development aid to support political reforms in Africa.2 Within Europe, the EU institutions are clearly the most important democracy aid donor; they provide almost as much democracy aid to Africa as Germany and the U.K. combined. The volume of the United States’ democracy aid to Africa has remained relatively stable since the mid-2000s, and the United States has provided much less democracy aid than have the EU institutions.3
The United States and the EU have introduced several instruments to promote democratic reforms through positive conditionality. In the early 2000s, President Bush initiated the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to promote poverty reduction and political reforms. The underlying rationale is that aid is more effective if given to well-governed countries and that poverty reduction and security challenges are closely linked. Research findings suggest that the MCC has positive effects on countries’ willingness to improve their governance performance in cases where countries are close to the required threshold and in situations where uncertainty about the volume and timing of the provision of MCC funds is limited (Aune, Chen, Miller, & Williams, 2013; Öhler, Nunnenkamp, & Dreher, 2012).
In a similar way to that of the United States, the EU also introduced positive conditionality, for instance in the form of the Governance Incentive Tranche that aimed to set material incentives to promote reforms in African countries (Molenaers & Nijs, 2009). Yet, the implementation of the Governance Incentive Tranche encountered considerable difficulties. Additional aid funds were disbursed as a reward for drafting governance action plans and not as a reward for actual implementation of these reforms. EU member states also insisted that countries where they have a special interest benefit from the initiative—irrespective of the level of ambition of the governance action plans. In addition to the Governance Incentive Tranche, aid modalities such as budget support allowed the EU and EU member states to incentivize political reforms. Minimum standards in terms of respect of human rights, transparency, and accountability in decision-making processes are a precondition of the provision of budget support. In the case of a breach of democratic principles and severe human rights violations, withholding budget support has been used to exert pressure on African governments (Molenaers, Gagiano, Smets, & Dellepiane, 2015).
The EU and the United States have continued to rely on negative conditionality, such as sanctions to respond to serious violations of human rights or a coup d’état. Both have used sanctions more frequently in relation to African countries than to any other regions. Yet, the EU was more reluctant to apply sanctions in the 2000s than in the 1990s (Portela, 2010; Zimelis, 2011). Moreover, the EU has been more hesitant to use economic sanctions (e.g., suspension of aid or trade preferences under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement). Instead, sanctions have been more often applied within the context of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and targeted at individuals (e.g., asset freezing and travel bans for high-level officials involved in gross human rights violations).
In terms of the content (Börzel & Risse, 2009) or substance (Wetzel & Orbie, 2011) of the political reforms external actors seek to promote in relation with African countries, the EU, EU member states, and the United States generally invest more in promoting the effectiveness of government institutions compared to the democratic quality of institutions. They also tend to work more closely with the government instead of supporting civil society organizations (Börzel & Risse, 2009). According to statistics from the OECD Development Assistance Committee, between 2006 and 2014 the EU institutions invested 60% of democracy aid funds in public sector and administrative reform, judicial and legal development, and public financial management. Only 40% of democracy aid was allocated to elections, human rights, and the democratic accountability of political institutions. However, the share of EU aid allocated to democratic reforms was still higher in Africa compared to other regions.
While support for democracy and human rights gained prominence in Western countries’ engagement with Africa, one has to bear in mind that it is obviously only one of the United States’ and EU’s policy objectives and interests. (For an overview of conflicting objectives in democracy promotion, see Leininger, Grimm, & Freyburg, 2013.) In their relations with African countries and elsewhere, the EU and the United States often prioritize security and stability over democracy (Brown, 2005; Brüne, 2007; Kopstein, 2005; Olsen, 1998). Energy, trade, and other economic interests mitigate external actors’ willingness to push for political reforms. For the EU, cooperation on migration management has recently become another objective that is overriding the promotion of democracy, human rights, and good governance (see later discussion). In addition, specific development policy interests and objectives may conflict with democracy support. As aid bureaucracies are under (public) pressure to show that development aid positively impacts poverty reduction and economic growth, donors are less likely to push for political reforms and use negative conditionality in countries with good economic performance and progress in poverty reduction (Del Biondo, 2011; Hackenesch, 2015).
With a view to explaining how these different interests are layered, scholars often focus on domestic factors in the EU or the United States and open the “black box” of Western decision-making processes. Several studies have argued that the economic, political, or security interests of specific EU member states considerably influence the EU’s policies (Crawford, 2001). France, in particular, impacts on the EU’s engagement with Africa (Claeys, 2004), shielding its former colonies from negative measures and sometimes actively undermining the efforts of other European actors from more closely coordinated use of pressure (Emmanuel, 2010). Moreover, the EU’s institutional setup has been identified as an important factor that makes it easier for the EU than for the United States to use positive instruments than to rely on punitive measures (Del Biondo, 2015).
Democracy Aid and Political Conditionality in Africa Between 1990 and 2015: Has It Worked?
The effectiveness of external democracy support in Africa is regularly questioned by academics and policymakers and in public debates (Carothers, 2015). Measuring the effectiveness of external democracy support and attributing political developments in a country to external interventions poses considerable challenges (Burnell, 2007). What is more, the EU and other external actors are criticized for being inconsistent in using their democracy support instruments in Africa. Some observers and policymakers, then, tend to conclude that external democracy support is not working, instead of putting forward arguments for using it more consistently. This section demonstrates that findings from academic research point to more mixed results. Research evidence suggest that democracy support made some positive contributions between 1990 and 2015, if well targeted to the local context in African countries, consistently applied in close coordination with other donors, and not overly ambitious.
Researchers interested in the effectiveness of external democracy support have analyzed the impact of aid, democracy aid, and political conditionality on political reforms in Africa from a macro-quantitative perspective, with regard to specific country cases and focusing on specific instruments such as democracy aid or sanctions.
Early macro-quantitative studies were mostly interested in the effect of general development aid on the level of democracy. These studies assume that aid impacts on democracy by supporting economic development in the target country or more directly through political conditionality, aid selectivity, and democracy aid (Dietrich & Wright, 2013; Knack, 2004). However, the specific causal mechanisms, and whether donors actually use political conditionality in their aid relations, is difficult to establish in macro-quantitative work. Some find that general aid has no effect on political reforms (Knack, 2004; Scott & Steele, 2005) and that it decreases the likelihood of democratization or strengthens autocratic survival in the longer term (Kalyvitis & Vlachaki, 2010; Kono & Montinola, 2009). Others, however, identify a positive effect of aid on the level of democracy (Kersting & Kilby, 2014), particularly in Africa, where aid dependence is comparatively high, and particularly after the end of the Cold War, when aid was less strongly driven by geostrategic interests (Dunning, 2004; Goldsmith, 2001). Dietrich and Wright (2013) identify a small positive effect of development aid on the transition from a one-party to a multiparty system in Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet, all donors are apparently not the same. After the end of the Cold War, the positive effect of general development aid on political reforms in Africa was limited to multilateral donors, including the EU (Menard, 2012) and some bilateral donors such as Sweden and the U.K. (Svensson, 1999).
Research that has analyzed the specific effect of democracy aid on political reforms in Africa has come to relatively positive conclusions. Dietrich and Wright (2015) argue that democracy aid has a stabilizing effect for multiparty regimes and that it reduces the likelihood of electoral misconduct. At the same time, democracy aid does little to alter the balance between the opposition and incumbent. Kalyvitis and Vlachaki (2010) demonstrate that democracy aid has a positive effect in aid-dependent countries that are already quite democratic. Even though they do not limit the geographic scope of their analysis to Africa, the finding is relevant for the continent, as many African countries are aid-dependent. Some detect a positive effect of the United States’ democracy aid on the level of democracy (Finkel, Pérez-Liñán, & Seligson, 2007; Scott & Steele, 2011). Heinrich and Loftis (2019) establish that democracy aid is associated with more electoral accountability, while Jones and Tarp (2016) concur that democracy aid has a positive effect on political institutions.
As a measure of last resort, external actors can also rely on sanctions to respond to a coup d’état or serious human rights violations. The EU’s use of aid sanctions in Africa is more successful than the EU’s sanctions in other regions (Portela, 2010). This positive effect is partly attributed to specificities of Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement, which forms the basis for the EU’s aid (and trade) sanctions in relation to ACP countries. Article 96 provides predictability and clarity for the application of sanctions by defining clear and mutually agreed procedures that have to be applied in cases where one partner breaches the essential elements of the Cotonou Agreement (democratic principles, human rights, and the rule of law). Moreover, the relatively high aid dependency of African countries compared to countries in other regions is identified as a factor that has made sanctions more successful (Portela, 2010).
Country case studies that assess Western actors’ support for political reforms in individual African countries have mixed results. In the case of Ghana, Crawford (2007, 169) reasons that the EU’s and EU member states’ democracy aid is “high on rhetoric but remains low on delivery.” He explains this rhetoric–implementation gap by arguing that the EU is driven by self-interest rather than normative considerations. Leininger (2010) shows how the close interaction between democracy supporters and local actors can undermine democratization processes in aid-dependent countries. On the other hand, a series of country case studies on democracy support in several African electoral democracies (Resnick & van de Walle, 2013) shows that democracy aid had a positive effect on promoting transitions from one-party to multiparty systems in the 1990s, when African countries had few alternative cooperation partners to ease the pressure from Western donors (Resnick, 2013). Moreover, examples from Mozambique (Manning & Malbrough, 2013), Tanzania (Tripp, 2013), and Malawi (Resnick, 2013) suggest that donors can contribute to countering reversals in democratic gains.
Recent research has investigated whether it makes a difference regarding which type of political regimes donors use—general development aid or democracy aid—to support reforms. Some argue that general development aid has an “amplification effect,” strengthening the regime it encounters, making democratic regimes more democratic and autocratic regimes more autocratic (Dutta, Leeson, & Williamson, 2012). Others find that the type of authoritarian regime makes a difference to the effect of aid on political reforms. It seems that development aid and democracy aid are more likely to support democratization in party-based regimes than in other types of authoritarian regimes (Cornell, 2012; Wright, 2009). In party regimes, the ruler can afford higher levels of political liberalization and is more likely to remain in an influential position even after regime breakdown; development aid and democracy aid thus produce lower costs for political leaders (Cornell, 2012; Wright, 2009).
The impact of aid and conditionality on political reforms in Africa is contested, and it is not straightforward to measure the effectiveness of external democracy support. Research findings suggest that, between 1990 and 2015, external democracy support made some positive contributions to political reforms on the continent. Political opening up in African countries in the early 1990s, the aid dependency (on the West) of African countries, as well as a favorable international context in which democracy was largely uncontested were all conducive factors. However, current debates about the future of external democracy support in Africa among policymakers are only to a limited extent informed by the evidence from experiences in the 1990s and 2000s (Dodsworth & Cheeseman, 2018). Moreover, several of the factors that have contributed to making democracy support successful—at least in some cases and under certain conditions—are fundamentally changing. The next section therefore examines recent trends that challenge external democracy support in Africa and identifies relevant research gaps.
Political Trends and Research Gaps: Democracy Support in Africa in the New Era of Uncertainty
About 25 years after democracy support entered Western actors’ engagement with African countries, this agenda is now considerably under strain. Not only has the domestic context in African countries become more challenging to support reforms from the outside but, maybe more importantly, changes within the West make it more difficult for democracy supporters to pursue this agenda. Several trends related to changes within Europe and the United States, domestic politics in African countries, and global trends impact on Western democracy-support strategies in Africa. Academic research has analyzed some of these trends but has several important white spots.
Challenges to democracy within Europe (and within the United States) question the legitimacy of democracy support and make it more difficult to anchor democratic norms in the EU’s strategies and instruments for engaging with African countries. The EU has been established as a community of values where liberal democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights are a precondition for EU membership. With rising populism across European countries and illiberal reforms in Poland and Hungary, the EU’s legitimacy in pointing to the need for political reforms in African countries is questioned. Moreover, the emergence of illiberal democracies within Europe impacts directly on the EU’s decision-making processes related to democracy support. EU member states always held different views on how strongly the EU should push for promoting democracy and human rights in its relations with African countries.4 Yet, these divergences have become more pronounced, leading to more controversy between member states and the EU institutions. For instance, during the preparation of the EU’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy (European Union, 2016), strong wording on democracy and human rights was questioned by some EU member states (Tocci, 2017). Poland blocked an EU mandate for negotiating the future of the EU’s relations with ACP countries, requesting the wording on sexual and reproductive health rights be downplayed (Chmiel, 2018). Greece and Hungary vetoed critical EU statements on human rights violations in China at the United Nations Human Rights Council. These examples indicate that the eroding consensus among European countries on democratic norms not only impacts the EU’s legitimacy to promote norms abroad but negatively affects the ability of actors engaged in democracy promotion to make this issue a relevant part of the EU’s foreign policy.
Beyond challenges for democracy from within Europe, the EU’s response toward the migrant and refugee flows since 2015 undermines its democracy support in African countries. Through the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, the External Investment Plan, or the Migration Partnership framework, the EU has begun concentrating aid funds on those African countries where migrants originate or transit (Castillejo, 2017; Lundsgaarde, 2017). If more aid is provided to these countries, this limits the EU’s financial resources to set material incentives for other African governments to engage in political reforms. What is more, when cooperating with countries where migrants originate or transit, migration-related objectives conflict with objectives to support democracy and human rights. In authoritarian contexts, such as Ethiopia and Sudan in particular, the EU cannot credibly leverage for political reforms if, at the same time, it uses aid funds to push for increasing the number of returnees. While the EU has always prioritized stability and security over democracy support, one difference with the debate on migration is that this is an issue in European domestic debates, putting the EU internally under enormous pressure. In 2018, a public opinion survey found that EU citizens expect the EU to engage considerably more on migration (de Vries & Hoffmann, 2018). In addition, ministries of interior and prime ministers’ offices have also taken a stronger interest in influencing the EU’s relations with African countries. Both factors make it more difficult for the EU institutions to keep democracy support on the agenda and reduce the EU’s leeway to design a more positive approach toward migration that would be compatible with democracy support.
The eroding consensus on democratic norms is not limited to the EU and EU member states. Even though democracy support in Africa has not come to a complete halt under the Trump administration, Trump’s presidency has serious negative implications for Western democracy support. The image of the United States’ democracy as a potential model for African or other countries has always been a key element of the United States’ democracy support abroad. According to an Afrobarometer survey, in 2015—shortly before President Trump came to power—most respondents (30%) in 36 African countries viewed the United States as the country with the best development model for the future of their own country, followed by China (24%; Lekorwe, Chingwete, Okuru, & Samson, 2016). With democratic norms under fire within the United States, and President Trump closely engaging with autocratic leaders, this positive image risks losing its attraction (Carothers, 2017). Moreover, President Trump’s withdrawal of the United States’ membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council represents a blow to the international framework within which external actors engage with individual African countries on human rights and democratic reforms.
Whereas research on democracy support has traditionally taken a strong interest in the domestic factors that explain why external actors use or do not use certain democracy support instruments, and whether they apply these instruments consistently, the impact of these recent trends on the EU’s and United States’ democracy support requires further analysis.
Not only challenges within Europe and the West more generally but also changing domestic contexts in African countries render it more difficult to support reforms from the outside. Even though African countries are more democratic today than in the 1980s, in many countries the third wave of democratization has not led to stable democratic regimes (Cheeseman, 2015; Gyimah-Boadi, 2004; Lynch & Crawford, 2011). Instead, authoritarian dominant party regimes that have formal democratic institutions but do not allow for meaningful political competition constitute a majority of African countries (Levitsky & Way, 2010; Magaloni & Kricheli, 2010). In several African countries, these dominant party regimes have come under severe pressure. This is the case for the “liberation movements in power” in southern Africa as well as for other long-standing ruling parties and movements in Ethiopia, Tanzania, or Uganda. In some cases, governments have responded by restricting political spaces for the opposition, civil society, and the media. Indeed, since the mid-2000s, the level of political liberalization in Africa has generally declined, in line with a global trend (Abramowitz, 2018). However, in other cases, such as Ethiopia or Burkina Faso, sustained political protest and cracks in the ruling party have led to political openings and the first steps of a democratization process.
Insights from studies on the domestic politics of authoritarian regimes give reason to be tentatively optimistic about the EU’s and other external actors’ chances of supporting democratization in African party-based regimes. Quantitative research finds that development aid and democracy aid are more likely to support democratization in party-based autocracies than in other types of authoritarian regime (Cornell, 2012; Wright, 2009). However, the democratic institutional façade in dominant party regimes makes it difficult for outside actors to identify whether democracy aid contributes to political reforms or whether it strengthens formal democratic institutions that enhance the incumbent’s position (Ottaway, 2003). Moreover, the EU and other Western actors’ democracy support strategies are not well prepared to respond to gradually declining political spaces and gradually reducing levels of political liberalization. Donors are hesitant to use their leverage and exert pressure in response to gradually declining levels of political liberalization in order to not jeopardize their overall aid relationship with the target government and other strategic interests related to migration, security, and economic cooperation (Hackenesch, 2015). In addition, for the EU and other donors it is challenging to develop democracy-support strategies that are context-sensitive and at the same time consistent across countries. The “third term” debate is a case in point. Whereas in Burundi, the EU put considerable pressure on the president to resign, in Rwanda and the Republic of Congo, the EU’s (and the United States’) criticism was much softer and quieter. Similarly, even though domestic challenges to African party-based regimes (particularly the liberation movements in power) are a wider trend, Western democracy promoters face considerable difficulties in developing a strategic approach that goes beyond case-by-case analysis and strategies.
Whereas shrinking spaces and party-based authoritarian regimes have been more widely researched, the implications of unfolding mega-trends such as demographic change, urbanization, and digitalization for external democracy support in Africa are rarely debated. Demographic change, urbanization, and digitalization will fundamentally shape African societies in the years to come, but their individual and combined effects on African political institutions and the potential role for external actors are unclear. Youth movements have begun to challenge established regimes and have played key roles in ousting authoritarian leaders in countries such as Burkina Faso (2014) and Ethiopia (2017–2018). The push for urbanization could have positive effects for democratization, as urban elites might be mobilized more easily to request improvements in public goods provision and accountability from their political leaders. Indeed, revolutions to subvert authoritarian regimes have often begun in cities, as seen most recently during the Arab spring, in Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia. At the same time, urban societies might be easier to control and to co-opt by authoritarian governments (Glaeser & Steinberg, 2016). Under what conditions urbanization contributes to democratic reforms, and how external democracy support can enhance the positive effects of urbanization, is a key issue for policymakers and future research. Similarly, more research is needed into how external actors could promote positive effects of digitalization for political liberalization, or how they can contribute to countering the potential risks posed by digitalization for political reforms. The wide usage of social media opens new channels to access information and enables democratic participation (Ndavula & Mberia, 2012; van Rensburg, 2012). The positive influence of social media in mobilizing protests during the Arab spring has been widely reported (Breuer, Landman, & Farquhar, 2015; Tufekci & Wilson, 2012). Yet, new technologies also give African rulers unique means to control citizens. Incumbents may shut down the Internet during critical election periods, as happened in several west African and central African countries. Surveillance of social media enables the control of opponents. Most recently, support from China for African governments’ investments in security technology and development of new media laws has been criticized for opening unprecedented opportunities for scrutinizing regime critics (Hawkins, 2018).
The interaction between demographic change, urbanization, and digitalization; its relationship with political reforms in sub-Saharan Africa; and the potential influence of external actors requires more attention from researchers as well as policymakers.
Finally, in addition to changes within the West and within African states and societies, the broader international context for supporting democracy and human rights has clearly become more difficult. Authoritarian powers such as China are attempting to legitimize the autocratic model internationally and are competing with European actors for political influence in Africa (Hackenesch, 2018). China is perceived as an alternative development model that competes with the Western model of combining liberal democracy with a market economy. Economic growth and success in poverty reduction in China since the late 1970s lends credibility to an alternative authoritarian development path. For some time, the Chinese government has been very reluctant to portray China as a “model” for other countries. Yet, since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has been much more assertive in propagating its socioeconomic success. In addition to promoting a positive image of its engagement with African countries (Wu, 2016), the Chinese Communist Party has intensified its engagement with African parties since 2012 to show the success of China’s economic model and discuss party governance (Hackenesch, 2018).
Providing important volumes of aid, other official flows, trade, and investments, China is also criticized for undermining Western democracy support in Africa by reducing the leverage of the EU and other Western actors to set incentives for political reforms through aid or trade (Halper, 2010). In Malawi, for instance, China increased its assistance at a strategic point in time when Germany decided to reduce aid in response to the Malawian president’s decision to cancel local elections (Resnick, 2013). Research findings on the influence of Chinese economic cooperation with African countries for Western democracy support are scarce and inconclusive. In a cross-country analysis, Li (2017) finds that the positive effect of Western development aid on political reforms in sub-Saharan Africa has diminished since China became a major alternative partner. He argues that the positive effect of political conditionality was therefore contingent on the period after the end of the Cold War, when Africa countries did not have alternative cooperation partners. On the other hand, comparative country case analyses for Angola, Ethiopia, and Rwanda suggest that China’s engagement with African countries had a limited effect on the EU’s efforts to promote democracy, human rights, and good governance between 2000 and 2015 (Hackenesch, 2018). Even in cases like that of Ethiopia, where the costs for cooperating on governance reforms were very high and China reduced the government’s economic dependence on the EU, the government continued engaging with the EU—albeit very reluctantly. The limited success of the EU’s strategies could not be attributed to the influence of China. Instead, the EU has not been very strategic in using its good governance instruments and failed to sufficiently take into account the domestic political dynamics and windows of opportunity to promote reforms (Hackenesch, 2018).
Since the early 1990s, democracy support has gained prominence in Western actors’ engagement with African countries (and beyond). Even though much skepticism has been voiced regarding the effectiveness of external democracy support, research findings suggest that—under certain conditions—democracy aid and political conditionality have contributed to political reforms in Africa between 1990 and 2015. Political openings and regime changes in Africa in the early 1990s, the (aid) dependency of African countries on European actors and the United States, as well as a favorable international context in which democracy was largely uncontested were all conducive factors for external democracy support.
In the past few years, however, democracy support has been fundamentally challenged. Current debates about the future of external democracy support in Africa among policymakers are only to a limited extent informed by the evidence from experiences between 1990 and 2015. Moreover, most of the factors that have contributed to making democracy support successful—at least in some cases—are fundamentally changing.
Against this backdrop, the article has identified three aspects to which policymakers and researchers should pay closer attention. First, contestation of democracy within the EU and the United States impact democracy support by reducing the legitimacy of the EU’s and the United States’ policies and by rendering decision-making on democracy support in the EU and the United States more difficult. The relevance of domestic factors in the EU and the United States in explaining the choice of democracy support instruments has been well researched. Yet, the contestation of basic democratic norms within the West opens a new research agenda.
Second, domestic contexts in African countries are changing fundamentally. The individual and combined effects of population growth, urbanization, and digitalization have only recently started to unfold but are already now putting African governments and political regimes under severe pressure. How external actors can contribute to make these mega-trends a positive driver of democratic reforms will be a second key area for policymakers and research in the years to come. Finally, the international context has been changing fundamentally as authoritarian powers such as China are presenting a political alternative to the Western model. How China’s more proactive and assertive foreign policy will affect democracy support in Africa is a third key area to which policymakers and researchers should devote close attention.
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(1.) The analysis of the quantitative trends in democracy support builds on figures from the OECD Development Assistance Committee Creditor Reporting System. All aid reported under the sector code “151: I.5.a. Government and Civil Society–General” is defined as democracy aid.
(2.) Between 2000 and 2017, Sweden has used 19% of its aid to Africa to support democratic reforms (US$2.7 billion), the U.K. 9% (US$4.2 billion), Germany 8% (US$4.4 billion) and France 1% (US$975 million).
(3.) According to statistics from the OECD Development Assistance Committee, the EU institutions provided about US$10.5 billion aid for democracy support (which is about 10% of total aid to Africa) compared to US$6.7 billion from the United States (which is about 4% of total aid to Africa) between 2000 and 2017.