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Democracy Promotion in Africa

Summary and Keywords

Democracy promotion in Africa became an increasingly important priority for Western donors in the late 1980s, with a growing normative consensus in support of democracy and human rights since that time. In practice, however, democracy promotion policies suffer from some flaws and inconsistencies and the nature of Africa’s hybrid and ambiguous regimes present severe challenges. The available evidence suggests that donor policies often reflect implicit concepts and theories that do not always reflect the reality on the ground. Moreover, since the turn of the millennium competing economic or strategic interests often trump the promotion of democracy and human rights. Significantly, donors do not always operate in the same way. More specifically, a review of recent activity suggests that donor governments tend to use a negative linkage strategy when they set conditions for economic aid and a positive linkage strategy when they support democratic institutions and processes. In both strategies, competitive elections occupy a central place. While this electoral focus entails limitations, the approach is marked by a clear focus and operationalization. By contrast, broader political approaches target human rights and the rule of law and strengthening of political institutions. These ambitious goals are difficult to achieve. Such policies work when they are based on adequate analysis of the specific institutional context, but they often run up against political challenges that are beyond the control of donors. The scholarship on democracy promotion agrees that positive change can be achieved where internal conditions are favorable and when policies take into account the specific political and institutional contexts in African countries. Broader long-term regime change, however, depends primarily on internal conditions, such as social and economic development, and requires donors to go beyond the “easy part” and address specific African contexts and specific institutional problems.

Keywords: Africa, international democracy promotion, negative linkage/political conditionality, positive linkage, electoral democracy, African Politics


Africa’s deep economic problems and poverty have long dominated the global development agenda. However, toward the end of the 1980s, democracy gained a prominent place on this agenda. The issue is not without precedent. First, during the Carter administration the promotion of human rights in the so-called Third World became an element of U.S. foreign policy. The subsequent establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983 by President Reagan marked this development, which signaled a reversal of the earlier emphasis on economics in development. During the same period, West European donor governments also began to assert the importance of political and civil rights, which had long been considered secondary to the overriding goals of socioeconomic development in the Third World. Following African leaders’ own arguments, European donor governments accepted the idea that developmental goals trumped democracy and that achieving them did not require democratic forms of government. However, while some Asian nondemocratic states could at least claim to be “developmental,” this did not apply to African countries. The economic crisis that culminated in major macroeconomic deficits and debt at the end of the 1970s led policymakers as well as social scientists to reconsider their views on Africa’s various authoritarian regimes. This continentwide economic crisis was also the subject of a study by the World Bank, which argued that African governments had pursued bad policies and suffered a crisis of governance (World Bank, 1989). “Good governance” thus entered the donor community agenda. Not surprisingly, because of the World Bank’s statutory clause prohibiting interference in political matters, good governance was framed in a rather technocratic manner, emphasizing efficient and transparent management of public resources without any direct reference to democracy as a regime type (see Leftwich, 2005).

Bilateral donors were not hindered by such constraints and explicitly embraced democracy as a foreign policy goal. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989, democracy seemed to emerge as the only viable and acceptable political system worldwide. A sense of euphoria marked the early 1990s, when the Third Wave of Democracy (Huntington, 1991) began to spread to Africa and Asia. A booming literature on democratic transitions appeared and a new policy field was born. French president Francois Mitterrand’s speech at La Baule in June 1990 ushered in a new foreign policy regime that implied that France would require aid recipient governments to be democratic, and the United Kingdom’s (U.K.) Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd similarly prioritized democracy in Africa. The European Union (EU) incorporated an explicit clause on democracy and human rights in the fourth Lomé agreement of 1990 and the European Council issued its resolution on “Human Rights, Democracy and Development” in 1991. Human rights were incorporated in the Cotonou Partnership Agreement of 1995, incorporating a clause allowing the suspension of aid in case of human rights or democratic deficits.

As the 1990s wore on, however, the early optimism was tempered. While some countries, such as Ghana, showed slow but real progress, a change of the guard in the first round of multiparty elections produced disappointing results in some African countries. (Zambia was a notorious case, where the previous opposition party soon behaved much like its authoritarian predecessor.) In other countries, single parties were transformed into dominant parties and elections did not create a real chance for turnover in government (e.g., Kenya in the first two rounds of multiparty elections, Tanzania). In many countries, the playing field for government and opposition parties was not level, and politics continued in a semiauthoritarian style. Some autocrats remained completely immune to the winds of democratic reform, producing increasingly cynical forms of political control, as in Zimbabwe. Countering the earlier, rather optimistic, Third Wave and “transitology” literature, new research examined the difficulty of democratic consolidation and utilized descriptive terminology, such as semi-democracy, pseudo-democracy, and electoral or illiberal democracy). The resilience of such hybrid regimes, combining some electoral procedures with authoritarian governance, led Ottaway (2003) to examine the strategies of authoritarian leaders and recommend ways to deal with this more complex political scenario.

Democratic commitment was also waning on the donor side. For example, Ghanese political scientist Gyimah Boadi (2015) signaled decreasing levels of democracy assistance. As the new millennium proceeded, two developments affected international democracy promotion: a new scramble for Africa’s newly found oil and mineral resources and the War on Terror. The first entailed that economic interests often overruled normative commitment to democracy promotion and the emergence of China and other non-members of the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD in Africa, who pursued these interests without posing political conditions (Cheeseman, 2015). The second implied that Western governments were inclined to maintain friendly relations with authoritarian regimes that were allies in the War on Terror. Stephen Brown (2011) examined the way Western donors tended to apologize for authoritarian regimes when they were led by these economic or security interests. Hagmann and Reyntjens (2016) warned readers not to take donor discourse on democracy and good governance at face value, and pointed to the fact that many of Africa’s top aid-receiving countries were authoritarian due to the continued salience of economic, political, and strategic interests. Van de Walle (2016) linked “democracy fatigue” to the “messiness” of real world democracy, which sits uneasily with the technocratic bias inherent in much development thinking. He distilled a ghost of modernization theory in this technocratic approach, which assumed that democracy and development are not easily combined.

However, while such ambiguities in donor commitment and hurdles presented by African hybrid regimes are evident, the idea of democracy and desirability of democratization remains on the Western policy agenda and has gained ground in Africa. This was evidenced by the establishment of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism in 2003, and the African Union’s Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance of 2007.

In this overview, and following Burnell (2011), democracy promotion refers to “largely non-coercive attempts to spread democracy abroad for whatever reason” (pp. 1–2). This article does not deal with forced democratization as through military intervention and refers to “democracy promotion,” which frequently overlaps with human rights and “good governance” policies. The article outlines the various policies Western governments, international agencies, and non-overnmental actors pursued in sub-Saharan Africa and distinguishes the various phases and approaches.1 But first, basic concepts of democracy are described and attention drawn to the particular African context in which democratic forms and procedures emerged.

Conceptual Issues

International democracy policies often base their strategies on implicit notions of democracy and assumptions about the causes or characteristics of democratic transitions. Conceptualizations of democracy in political science range from “minimal” to “maximal” and can be placed on a continuum ranging from authoritarianism to full advanced democracy, as in Schedler (1998) or, alternatively, be placed in a figure of concentric circles, as shown in Figure 1 (see also, IDEA, 2009). At the minimal side of the continuum, and in the core circle of this figure lies the feature of competitive, multiparty elections. This core notion derives from Schumpeter’s approach, which identified democracy as a procedure whereby political decision makers are selected through a popular vote among competitive elites. At this very minimal level, the concept of electoral democracy is often applied. However, there is the question of what kinds or how many freedoms and rights are necessary for democracy. While these rights and freedoms may be minimally applied to the conditions allowing free and fair elections, they may also concern a broader context of liberal constitutionalism. Robert Dahl (1971) elaborated the various conditions necessary for a truly democratic system to exist, or in his words “polyarchy.” These conditions range from basic civil and political rights to freedom of the press and liberal institutions guaranteeing the rule of law. In Figure 1, these issues relevant for liberal democracy lie in the second circle. Last, on the more maximalist side of the continuum and in the largest circle of Figure 1, are issues essential for those who emphasize substantive equality and rights in the social and economic sphere. These critics of procedural or “elitist” democracy argue that formal political rights will not create equality and real democracy. Substantive equality will require social and economic rights and access to education and opportunities, in other words full development.

Democracy Promotion in AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Themes informing democracy promotion policies. The concentric circles reflect respectively electoral, liberal, and substantive democracy concepts.

Adapted from IDEA (2009).

Similarly, democracy promotion policies are often implicitly based on assumptions about the prerequisites for democracy and causes of democratic transitions. First, the age-old social science polarity between structure and agency influences the way real-life actors approach democracy (for a useful overview of this debate see Hyden, 2002). Does democracy or democratic transition require structural preconditions such as a certain level of economic development, a certain type of political culture, or certain elite pacts resulting from structural class formations or historical paths? Or is democracy and democratization dependent upon the choices of individuals, leaders, middle groups, or the masses? And if so, can their visions and strategies be significantly influenced by external actors? Democracy promoters assume that (external) agency can significantly affect democratic transitions.

Somewhere on the continuum between structure and agency is the role of institutions in democratization, which are more open to change during times of transition than during “normal” times. Consider, in particular, the impact of competitive elections. Having featured mainly as a marking point for the installment of democracy in the previous literature, Staffan Lindberg (2009) elaborated a theory on a distinctive African path of democratization by elections. His thesis that “de jure competitive elections provide a set of institutions, rights and processes stacking up incentives and costs in ways that tend to further democratization” led to a renewed debate on the role of elections in democratization (Lindberg, 2009, p. 9; for a critique, see Bogaards, 2013). Lindberg’s work resurrected the analytical framework from Dahl’s, 1971 book on the cost of repression and toleration in an analysis of a two-level game of regime transition.

Another issue relevant to democracy promotion policies is the question of the extent to which internal or external factors effect democratic change. Before the so-called Third Wave of Democratization (Huntington, 1991), most scholarly work examined internal processes and actors as decisive in democratization; later on, external factors, such as the role of the Catholic Church (in Latin American transitions), the Western human rights agenda mentioned earlier, and the policies of external governments came to be seen as important factors in democratization. Huntington, who was on the agency side of the structure-agency equation, elaborated choices of domestic and external actors in his analysis and policy advice. His work and the initial post-Cold War euphoria led to an implicit, optimistic, and in hindsight simplistic “transition paradigm that assumed a straight path from authoritarianism to democracy. This was proven incorrect in the course of the 1990s (see Carothers, 2002).

The post-Cold War embrace of democracy and the transition paradigm was also marked by its neglect of particular historical and political contexts. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, this context is marked by weak state institutions and a legacy of authoritarian and personal rule. The neopatrimonial nature of the African state implies that seemingly “modern” political procedures and institutions coexist with a political culture and behavior based on personalism and clientelism (Bratton & van de Walle, 1997, pp. 61–62). Access to state power continues to imply access to economic resources, raising the stakes to gain or maintain control of the state. This informal pattern is sustained and reinforced by political institutions marked by majoritarianism and concentration of power in the presidential executive (van Cranenburgh, 2008). The extent to which democracy promotion addresses these contextual issues is addressed in the next sections.

Negative Linkage: Political Conditionality

Policies to promote democracy have been distinguished in several ways, for example, direct versus indirect policies, diplomacy versus coercive intervention, and different kinds of linkage (see for a useful schematic figure Cheeseman, 2015, p. 116). This overview focuses on noncoercive attempts to promote democracy, in particular through the concept of linkage. Two main strategies are identified in the literature: the application of political conditions for development aid, or negative linkage (also referred to as the “carrot and stick” approach), and the provision of aid to strengthen democracy by assisting democratic institutions or processes, or positive linkage (see Brown, 2013; van Cranenburgh, 2011). This distinction mirrors the strategies used in the case of the promotion of human rights through foreign policy. These two strategies do not cover the entire “universe” of democracy promotion policies, as Western governments also use normal or “backroom” diplomacy to encourage political reforms or elections without explicit linkage to aid (Cheeseman, 2015, p. 116). Such use of “soft power” in diplomacy is inherently more difficult to document.

The negative linkage approach derives from the historic role of Western governments, and Europe in particular, in trade and development assistance on the African continent. Negative linkage may be defined as the granting or withholding of economic aid depending on whether the recipient country complies with human rights or democratic requirements posed by the donor government. The “carrot” consists of the granting of new aid or an increase of aid, and the “stick” is the withholding, freezing, or decreasing of aid. This policy type marks bilateral aid relations rather than multilateral aid, which is not supposed to be granted on the basis of political criteria.

Issues affecting the application of political conditionality identified in the literature are consistency in application (treating similar countries similarly) and joint and coordinated action by donor countries (to avoid the recipient country to seek and obtain alternative sources of aid). As was the case with human rights policies, consistency in application is weakened by the fact that bilateral donors pursue other strategic, security, or economic interests besides their normative goals in the field of democracy. In Europe, France has repeatedly broken ranks with the EU to maintain long-standing relations with its former colonies, both authoritarian and democratic (see in particular Hagmann & Reyntjens, 2016). Indeed, several authors have concluded that political, strategic, or economic interests often overrule the promotion of democracy. Recipient countries may exploit this. Brown (2005) pointed to “reverse linkage,” which implies that recipient countries can manipulate donor demands knowing their other strategic or economic interests. In the post-9/11 era, security concerns make donor governments particularly lenient toward regimes that play a role in the War on Terror (Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda).

Studies on the effects of political conditionality generally point to very modest results. Bratton and van de Walle (1997) concluded in their study of African political reforms during the early 1990s that it is difficult to separate the effects of external pressure for democratization from internal pressure from opposition movements (p. 182). They examined 23 transitions in which conditionality may have played a supplementary role, but political reforms were affected without donor conditionality in 17 cases. Interestingly the authors observed that the greater the donor conditionality, the lesser the extent of political reform. Olsen (1998) concluded that democracy promotion by the EU constitutes little more than rhetoric. There does not seem to be a learning curve over time. Brown (2005), some eight years later, similarly noted limited success of conditionality. While conditionality may induce regimes to hold multiparty elections, it is not effective in producing a longer-term democratic transition.

Levitsky and Way (2005) examined linkage and leverage as important determinants of success in this field (p. 21). Linkage refers to the density of ties to the West, while leverage refers to the degree of vulnerability to external pressure. High levels of linkage and leverage make the application of political conditionality more successful (e.g., the European Union and Eastern Europe). In the case of aid-dependent countries in sub-Saharan Africa, a combination of low linkage and high leverage makes African regimes likely to comply with political conditions, but, as Levitsky and Way pointed out, the results are still limited because governments focus on the holding of multiparty elections and because of the presence of competing foreign policy interests. From the African side, critics charge that using leverage to force democratic reforms violates the partnership principle that has been emphasized in EU-African relations since the new millennium (IDEA, 2009, p. 58).

Final complications in the field of conditionality include government anticipation of conditions and implementation of reforms to avoid being confronted with aid cuts. Knowing that donors are reluctant to disrupt their long-term projects and programs through aid cuts, an effective strategy of African governments is to implement some minimal or cosmetic reforms on their own initiative, thereby releasing pressure and preventing a fuller transition to democracy. Moreover, there often is a gap between (stated) intentions and implementation: the target regime may agree to donor demands but later fail to implement the promised reforms. Due to donors’ initial focus on the holding of elections (at the expense of broader political reforms), target regimes may comply through minimal measures, such as legalizing the opposition and holding elections, without securing a level playing field.

Kenya and Malawi are among the relatively successful cases of political conditionality. Both cases were relatively untainted by competing strategic or economic donor interests, although the political reforms were somewhat shallow. But human rights conditionality did not significantly affect the Sudan government. In the period since the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 2001, several authors have noted that the promotion of democracy through political conditions has been trumped by donors’ security and strategic interests, much as during the Cold War era. The United States tolerates Ethiopia’s less-than-democratic political practices because it is seen as an ally against Islamic fundamentalism. Despite the EU’s variety of instruments and treaties allowing the application of conditionality, several authors point to the gap between rhetoric and reality, with democratization often superseded by other political and economic interests (Brown, 2005; Burnell, 2011; Crawford, 2005; Olsen, 1998).

In the assessment of effects, therefore, a distinction must be made between narrower or more shallow electoral reforms and full democratization. Rapid transitions to electoral democracy, in absence of full political commitment to political liberalization and the rule of law, may in the end impede full democratization or result in a perverted form of minimal or pseudo-electoral democracy. This phenomenon raises the question of timing and sequence—a theme of interest in the broader democracy literature. Should elections be encouraged when preconditions in the field of civil and political rights and rule of law are not met? In sub-Saharan Africa, full electoral participation is granted in a context where the extension of freedoms and rights has not been complete, either constitutionally or in practice, and state institutions are weak. Can democracy be promoted “backwards” (Bratton & Chang, 2006; Burnell, 2011)? On the other hand, even flawed elections may in time further rights and lead to full democratization (Lindberg, 2009). However, if political conditions for aid are to contribute to meaningful democratization, conditions should not only address multiparty elections but also civil and political rights and the rule of law, issues covered in the second circle of Figure 1. In sum, the application and effectiveness of political conditionality by donors is treated with some skepticism in the literature, and particularly when it is not combined with the strategy of positive linkage.

Positive Linkage: Assisting Democratic Change

Positive linkage entails a broad spectrum of policy instruments comprising financial or technical support for democratic institutions or procedures provided to government and nongovernmental institutions. This type of assistance may also be reported under the categories of governance and human rights. Partly due to its broad scope, the record of this policy strategy is more varied than the strategy of political conditionality.

Spending on such democracy promotion instruments has increased significantly since the early 1990s, but the variety of instruments and budget headings make overall estimates and comparisons of donors very difficult. Burnell (2011) cites World Bank figures indicating an increase from 0.5% of overall development assistance in 1991 to 5% in 2000 (p. 57). The United States increased its spending on democracy assistance from 128 million dollars in 1990 to 902 million in 2005 (Azpuru, Finkel, Perez-Linan, & Seligson, 2008, p. 152). Cheeseman (2015) reported numbers rising to more than one billion dollars in 2005 (p. 115). Youngs (2008) provided details about the rising expenditure of individual European countries and the EU. The EU increased its assistance under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and gradually reached 135 million euros in 2007. Total European Commission aid for democracy in a broader sense—including governance—reached 1.4 billion euros, or 18% of the total aid budget of 2006. Most of this European aid was directed to Africa (Youngs, 2008, p. 162).

Policy instruments include support for elections, election monitoring, and voter education; support for political parties and parliaments; and support for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the media, and nongovernmental think tanks and policy centers. Over time and depending on the actors involved, different emphases in donor policies may be identified. Some authors use a distinction based on the main “targets” of policy, either state institutions or civil society, and argue that Europe is more strongly focused on the state while the United States focuses on civil society (Kopstein, 2006; Youngs, 2008). Because most policymakers work with both state and civil society actors in their policy approaches, I prefer to categorize approaches by placing them within the concentric thematic circles identified in Figure 1, with the understanding that any categorization has its limits and gray zones are evident. Accordingly, and partially following Carothers (2009), who distinguished the political from the developmental approach, positive linkage approaches can be grouped under three headings: the electoral approach, the rights/rule of law approach, and the developmental approach.

The policy domain was initially, and according to some critics still is characterized by, a focus on the inner circles consisting of multiparty elections and procedures and institutions closely associated with it, in other words, the “political approach.” Several authors argue that the narrow political approach characterizes U.S. policies, while a broader human rights, governance or developmental approach characterizes European policy (Youngs, 2008, p. 165); Carothers (2009) has warned against overgeneralization and argues that the differences concern merely the precise proportions within the mix of policy instruments employed by both. The analysis of U.S. budget allocations for democracy and governance by Azpuru et al. (1999) showed that spending on elections represented a rather small share of the global budget in this field, as did Carothers analysis of U.S. democracy promotion (p. 50). After Eastern Europe, Africa received most of this U.S. aid. Reflecting the overall tendency in democracy assistance, and considering its more precise concretization in clearly identifiable policy instruments, policies placed in the inner two circles of Figure 1 receive most attention in this article. Policy approaches fitting in the widest circle are characterized by a large scope and overlap with overall development aid, and are thus inherently more difficult to analyze separately as an instrument for democracy promotion.

Supporting and Facilitating Multiparty Elections

In the early 1990s, reflecting the initial euphoria and optimism about the prospect of democratization, Western governments focused on enabling multiparty elections, often the first round after a period of one-party or personalist rule (see, e.g., Bjornlund, 2004, p. 7; Carothers, 1999, p. 89). At the time, the expectation was that this was the best way toward democracy. This electoral focus was not without a rationale. Transition elections clearly represent a major first marking point of a democratic transition. Elections are expensive and require resources and facilities, such as transport, ICT, and communication facilities, which are often in short supply in African countries. Moreover, they require know-how and experience with free and fair elections, which was limited. Western governments financed electoral commissions and provided technical assistance to them, often in cooperation with the United Nations’ (UN’s) Electoral Support Unit.

In addition to direct financing of multiparty elections, Western governments funded and provided international observers to multiparty elections. Election observation or monitoring became a booming industry, also constituting the most obvious and visible element of democracy promotion (Bjornlund, 2004, pp. 8–9; Burnell, 2006, p. 8; Kelley, 2012, p. 3). The phenomenon of electoral observation reached a peak with the South African election in 1994 for which thousands of international observers were flown in. The UN or the EU often took a coordinating role for missions staffed by bilateral donors, and over time, the African Union became increasingly involved in election observation.

International observation or monitoring entails the presence of foreigners to observe and report on the electoral process. The core mission, is “to provide reliable and accurate information to the international community and domestic actors” (Kelley, 2012, p. 6). While observers are, in principle, not supposed to intervene in the process, they normally issue reports and recommendations, which may help to improve electoral procedures.2 Assistance may also be directed to domestic election monitoring. The latter process involves local actors, often NGOs or networks of NGOs reporting on the polling and the vote count. While international observers are thought to be politically neutral and may provide expertise and experience with electoral procedures, domestic observers are well informed about local conditions and may have experienced specific forms of electoral manipulation. This also implies, however, that they may be less politically neutral. The greatest comparative advantage of domestic observers, which over time came to be emphasized more, is that they can mobilize larger numbers of volunteers and form an important source of local accountability and countervailing power.

The rationale for international observation of elections, in particular transition elections, was to prevent fraud, create confidence with the public and in particular with the opposition, and to legitimize the results. However, on all these fronts, the new policy field also suffered from problems. The literature identified various infant illnesses during the mid- to late 1990s (Carothers, 1997; for case studies, see Abbink & Hesseling, 2000). One concern was the initial tendency of observation missions to focus on election day itself, neglecting the voter registration process, the monitoring of the campaigns, and the legal framework. Moreover, the criteria for free and fair elections were often deemed inadequate or unclear (Bjornlund, 2004). Elklit and Svensson (1997), however, argued that such absolute standards do not exist and that electoral observation inherently involves transition situations where elections are likely to be neither completely free and fair, nor completely unfree and unfair. Nuances were brought in to reflect whether the elections had brought democratic improvement and whether the outcome reflected the will of the people. However, some authors were not at ease with such phrases and remained critical of the tendency to underreport electoral deficiencies in spite of irregularities in the electoral process in the interest of quickly resuming the disbursement of aid (Geisler, 1993).

Observer missions were also criticized for a lack of professionality and the observers referred to as “electoral tourists.” This clearly compromised the legitimizing function of observation, which seemed already guaranteed by the mere presence of observers, whatever they reported. This pointed to the need to make a serious pre-election assessment to determine the overall legal and political framework before sending observers. Lastly, in some cases, work done by domestic monitors was duplicated and there was a lack of coordination between domestic and international observers. Bjornlund (2004, p. 242) argued that better coordination would imply more benefits from the respective strengths and weaknesses of both kinds of observers.

In the field of election observation, some learning seems to have taken place, with missions now covering a longer period. They are more professionalized and recognize the importance of the precise electoral framework. This learning was not in the least due to the analyses and advice of newly established international institutions, such as the intergovernmental think tank Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Stockholm. IDEA issued a Code of Conduct for international observers and tackled issues such as the choice of electoral systems, which helped to reflect on the effects of majoritarian electoral systems present in many African countries. However, election monitoring is also manipulated in various ways by governments unwilling to relinquish power through free and fair elections. In a comprehensive account of the evolution of international election monitoring, Kelley (2012) examined the numerous actors involved, the supply and demand factors fueling the growth of the industry, and the effect of monitoring on the quality of democracy. The positive effect on democracy is compromised because the acceptance of election observation as an international standard implies that even African governments that are willing and able to cheat now invite observers (Kelley, 2012, p. 31). This also led to what Kelley called a “shadow market” in the field, with such governments inviting friendly observers to produce favorable reports. Kelley’s sophisticated analysis of the quality of election observers’ assessments worldwide detailed five types of bias, among which the character of the observing organization, the presence of foreign aid, and the concern for political stability affected the reporting. Election monitoring, in the end, can assist democratization in a piecemeal fashion, but it must face up to several weaknesses and dilemmas evident in actual practice.

In sum, support and facilitation of multiparty elections has occupied a central place in democracy promotion, reflecting a general consensus that democracy is hard to imagine without such competitive elections. However, while being a necessary condition, elections are not a sufficient condition for democracy. Moreover, as discussed in the context of the negative linkage approach, the timing of elections raises questions about the proper sequence in democratization: can elections provide a meaningful step toward democracy in the absence of protection of civil and political rights, as in Kenya’s 1992 elections, or is this an example of “perverse assistance” (see Burnell, 2011, p. 230)? The renewed debate on the possible causal effects of competitive elections on furthering democratic transition leaves this question open. Over time, however, awareness of the broader, nonelectoral issues determining the success of any democratization process has increased, perhaps as a result of the more sobering tone of the academic literature from the mid-1990s on. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2002 Human Development Report, with the subtitle “Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World,” clearly reflected this overall perspective, which implies the importance of a broad effort to strengthen civil rights and liberal constitutionalism. Before addressing these issues, a specific form of assistance in the core “political approach” must be discussed.

Strengthening Political Parties

Political parties play a central role in representative democracy. Although advanced Western democracies suffer from a decline of parties and fundamental critiques of the roles parties perform, there can be no doubt that political parties perform a central role in democratization processes. Their roles concern linking state and society. Classical functions distinguished in the literature on established democracies include interest articulation and aggregation, communication and education, recruitment and selection for public office. In addition, parties have been distinguished on the basis of their organizational origin as being either elite (cadre) or mass parties, with relatively strong programmatic appeals, and on the basis of their strong electoral orientation (catch-all parties).

The political parties emerging in African democratic transitions, however, are first and most obviously new, or relatively young (in a few cases they have roots in previous periods that allowed political pluralism). This implies a weak organizational development, weak social roots, and a lack of capacity in fulfilling the functions associated with parties in advanced democracies. This also creates volatility in the party system (Carothers, 2006). Second, much as during Africa’s liberation from colonial rule, political parties find their origin in broad movements that mobilize the population against the government. Africa’s “second liberation” during the early 1990s mobilized broad sectors against authoritarian rulers, but did not articulate very clear alternatives in terms of policy or ideology. Third, African political parties originate in a context of personalist and authoritarian politics. In some cases, this implies that the party system is dominated by the former single party, and not open to the entrance of new parties. Internally, parties are marked by personalist leadership styles. Fragmentation and factionalism hampers the opposition’s ability to unite or coalesce and thus present realistic alternatives. In Tanzania’s first multiparty election, some 120 parties contested the (majoritarian) election. For these various reasons, these new parties have often been referred to as proto-parties or embryonic parties, characterized by general weak capacity (Burnell, 2006; Carothers, 2006).

It is an obvious consequence that Western democracy promoters framed policies in terms of the need to strengthen political parties. Many institutions emerged to address this, creating a fragmented landscape for this new “industry.” Party assistance is provided by both government (development) agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or state development agencies or Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and by multilateral organizations such as UNDP and OSCE. Next are party-related foundations. In Germany the party-linked Stiftungen have been engaged in this field since the 1970s; the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy was founded in 1983, working through the newly founded National Democratic Institute or the International Republican Institute. The U.K. established the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in 1992 and in the Netherlands, the Institute for Multi-Party Democracy (NIMD) emerged in 2000 out of an earlier foundation focused on the South African transition from apartheid.

Partly due to this fragmentation, and the various categories under which assistance to political parties is placed, several authors note that precise figures about overall spending are hard to obtain; the amounts are, according to Burnell (2006), in the “millions rather than billions of euros, pounds or dollars” (p. 7; see also Carothers, 2006, p. 84). Assistance may be provided by Western parties or party-related foundations to like-minded “sister” parties in African countries, or by such institutions and (inter-)governmental aid agencies “cross-party” (neutrally) to a range of new parties in transition countries. Political party assistance typically takes the form of seminars, conferences, trainings, and exchanges, in other words, it consists of advice and transfer of knowledge and experience, and only in a minority of cases of direct financial transfers, for example donations for office equipment.

In emerging democracies, and particularly in Africa’s transition elections during the early 1990s, parties were predominantly engaged in electoral competition, and thus in the role of recruitment of alternative leaders. First, and in parallel to the policies discussed earlier regarding multiparty elections, the capacity to participate effectively in elections, such as conducting campaigns, mobilizing citizens to vote, and voter education, predominated political party assistance (see also, Burnell, 2006, pp. 22–23; Carothers, 2006, p. 7). This electoral focus also implies a rather short-term perspective in party assistance in a context of “compression” of democratic change (Carothers, 2006, p. 54). Therefore, party assistance can for a considerable part be placed under the electoral approach, within the inner circle of Figure 1.

As time progressed, however, wider party functions were taken up, such as the capacity to analyze policies and present coherent alternatives, the parties’ links to society and internal democratic processes, including strengthening opportunities for political participation, in particular by women. These types of policies are directed at parties’ roles between elections, as distinguished by Burnell (2006, pp. 22–23), and over the longer term. Other activities aim at strengthening a democratic culture or the party system as a whole and even broader developmental activities. The German Stiftungen generally refrain from limited party-to-party partnerships and engage in all-party or civil society activities. The Dutch NIMD, for example, is focused on interparty dialogue. The International IDEA based in Stockholm addressed internal party democracy and issued a code of conduct for political parties. Such policy instruments address issues within the second circle of Figure 1. Among such broader policies, strengthening parties’ role in Parliament overlaps with policies in the framework of “good governance.” Thus, political party assistance also addresses institutional influences on parties, such as the electoral system, the timing of presidential and parliamentary elections, and strengthening parliament vis-a-vis the executive. The UNDP’s strategy for political party assistance distinguishes direct and indirect support, with indirect forms of support addressing the role of parties in parliament, the electoral system, and policy support for democratic governance. For Africa, however, the UNDPs’ main entry point is the electoral line (UNDP, 2005, pp. 4–8).

Most authors agree that political party assistance in practice has followed broadly similar lines across the different donor-institutions involved, although specific emphases characterize specific actors. Critiques on political party assistance include the short-term and electoral focus. Moreover, policies tended to be supply- or donor-driven, which also implies a top-down and external impetus for party development (Burnell, 2006, p. 20). Carothers (2006) shows that Western policymakers tend to follow a universal model in this field, disregarding differences in time, region, and context. The standard approach uses a “mythic” model of parties in the West (Carothers, 2006, p. 123). Moreover, it disregards issues of political power. Party support should be improved among others by differentiating between different kinds of party systems in transition countries and identifying the precise challenges to address (Carothers, 2006, pp. 70–72). In the case of previous one-party regimes, for example, separating state and party was an immediate challenge (as in Tanzania). This agrees with the argument that policymakers need to distinguish different phases of democratic development, requiring different strategies or a staged approach (Burnell, 2006). Lastly, party assistance, much as wider democracy assistance, must consider more seriously the institutional context in which it intervenes, be it the strongly majoritarian electoral features or the strong executive domination in most African countries (van Cranenburgh, 2011). Presidentialism bodes ill for the development of strong parties and reinforces the highly personalist and clientelist features of African politics.

In sum, party assistance has evolved from infancy to maturity. The electoral focus remains important and in many cases dominant, but wider recognition of the constraints and possibilities in the field of civil and political rights, rule of law, and the context of political institutions increased its sophistication. However, weaknesses continue to plague the field, implying that besides some positive changes, transformative change is rather limited (Carothers, 2006, pp. 162–163). This also has to do with a failure to fully appreciate that democratization cannot ignore issues of interests and power.

Promoting Civil Rights, the Rule of Law, and Liberal Constitutionalism

From its very beginning, democracy promotion has also tackled issues in the field of human rights and the rule of law, overlapping with preexisting human rights policies. During authoritarian rule, donor governments often directed their assistance to civil society actors, in particular NGOs engaged in advocacy for and protection of human rights. After a transition, the idea is that democracy cannot flourish in the absence of civil and political rights and the rule of law—much in line with the preconditions for polyarchy elaborated by Robert Dahl. Aid to promote human rights, therefore, can be placed in the second circle of Figure 1. The right to political participation, both active and passive suffrage, the right to organize, and freedom of speech are essential to make democratic procedures work. Moreover, without the rule of law, such rights are in practice not enforced.

In the wake of the Third Wave, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the EU all initiated new human rights resolutions and policy instruments. In Africa, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights of 1981 had urged all governments to establish national human rights commissions, with specific but varying mandates to address human rights issues. Within the donor community, the UNDP Human Development Report of 2000 took up the theme of human rights and strategies for assistance in this field and developed a “service line” for Justice and Human Rights (UNDP, 2005). The UNDP strategy includes promoting human rights norms, a strong and independent judiciary, and constitutional reforms, and creating a network of human rights institutions such as national commissions and an ombudsman (UNDP, 2000). In the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights established in 2000, funding for human rights and democracy increased with its renewal in 2007, and quite substantially in 2014.

For analytical purposes, policies in the field of rights and rule of law may be distinguished on the basis of their orientation to the supply side or the demand side. On the demand side, aid is directed to civil society actors, such as NGOs or the media, to strengthen their role in defending human rights, assisting victims of human rights abuses, and advocating for better protection of rights. The approach may also be called “bottom up” (Carothers, 1999). Such policies have antecedents in preexisting cofinancing schemes in which donor governments have long channeled aid through NGOs in an effort to strengthen civil society.

As civil society was often important to enabling a transition to democracy, there was a tendency among some donor institutions to focus their human rights aid on civil society actors, in other words, from the bottom up. Also, in Africa, it was through NGOs and democratic movements that large sections of the population were mobilized to protest authoritarian regimes. Funding such movements and NGOs was an obvious strategy to strengthen countervailing power. For example, African national human rights commissions are assumed to work more effectively when there is a strong partnership and coordination with human rights NGOs (Sewanyana, 2005). The media constituted a further target for democracy assistance. Many regimes had state-controlled media and exercised direct or indirect forms of censorship, so the task was to create a pluralist media system free of government controls and also to raise the standard of journalism. The EU’s civil society approach in furthering rights and the rule of law is reflected in a separate budget line as presented in a European Commission paper of 1998 (Nolting, 2001, p. 106). The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights mainly funds civil society organizations. As for the United States, the largest share of U.S. democracy assistance went to civil society, according to Azpuru et al. (2008, p. 157). Most aid to civil society consists of technical assistance, such as training and advice, with a smaller part of direct funding for office equipment, as detailed for the USAID by Carothers (1999, p. 213).

Donor institutions considered aiding civil society organizations attractive due to their presumed nonpolitical or nonpartisan character, like-mindedness with Western counterparts, and their potential role in empowerment of the people (Burnell, 2011, p. 49). Evidently, the policy to direct aid to NGOs was based on several assumptions about their role. Firstly, NGOs were considered to be part of “civil society,” being considered essential in pluralist democracy. However, notions of civil society are contested and often idealized (Haynes, 1997, p. 170). NGOs are a very specific type of civil society actor in African countries, characterized by a strong orientation to development and heavy dependence on Western funding, far from the autonomous interest-based associations European or American policymakers have in mind. Since the antistate bias in development policy of the 1980s, NGOs have often become implementing agencies for service delivery, which compromises their role as autonomous actor vis à vis the state and their advocacy role. Moreover, NGOs also reflect the wider personalist and neopatrimonial features of African politics, which limits their democratic character. Thus expectations about the role of African NGOs to strengthen civil society and thereby strengthen democracy should not be overly high. NGOs in Uganda, for example are frequently co-opted by the National Resistance Movement government and are dependent on state and donor support (Opolot, 2004). That being said, support to NGOs that promote human rights represents a building block in the broader approach to democracy promotion, which may in the longer run strengthen the countervailing powers in African regimes.

Donor institutions address the supply side when they assist state institutions to strengthen the rule of law and reflect liberal constitutional design. This approach, also called “top down” (Carothers, 1999), can only be done with governments that are willing to reform, in other words, where the regime is open or democratizing. Such support often comes under the heading of governance assistance and appears to be less political than the policies directed at the electoral process. The EU strongly emphasizes governance support in its approach to democratization, but it also represents a sizable proportion of the United States democracy assistance (Carothers, 1999, p. 50). In governance assistance, the themes of accountability, transparency, rule of law, participation, and decentralization are recurrent.

Donors support parliaments in order to strengthen the balance of power between the branches of government, as also addressed in the context of political party assistance. Trainings and seminars, for example, aim to increase the capacity of committee members. Policies to strengthen the rule of law may be directed at institutions such as the auditor, the courts, the prosecutor, and the police. Assistance directed at the judicial process is of a mostly technical nature. Experts from Western countries are seconded to the offices concerned or training is provided; examples include providing training to the police or prison authorities to teach due process and decent treatment of detainees and support to the prosecutor or the courts to strengthen judicial procedures. Opolot (2004) provides an overview of such assistance to Uganda, a case clearly evidencing the dilemmas of such support in a political context increasingly marked by intolerance of opposition. Sewanyana (2005) also warns that national human rights commissions funded by donors are used by some African governments to dominate the field of human rights and displace NGOs, providing examples from Togo, Sudan, Rwanda, and Kenya.

The good governance agenda has been widely embraced by Western donors. Thus “capacity building” and institutional strengthening became mantras in the aid business. Grindle (2007) was among the authors who criticized this agenda as being a-historic and naive, and insufficiently geared to specific local contexts. Moreover, the long good-governance agenda ignored the question of prioritization and what works for the poor (Grindle, 2007). Carothers (1999) criticized the tendency toward “institutional modelling,” with donors attempting to reproduce the institutional components of established democracies (p. 90). Booth similarly argued that governance support by Western donors is based on the expectation that institutions will work as they do in the West, with insufficient attention to context, timescales, and trade-offs. The aid business should recognize that not all leaders are “developmental” and that there are “institutional blockages,” rather than mere funding gaps (Booth, 2011). Booth and Cammack (2013) addressed governance issues in the context of service delivery for development and provided a strong critique of the “magic bullets” prevalent in governance policies. The authors went beyond the popular thinking in terms of principal-agent models and showed that governance runs against collective action problems on both the supply and the demand side for services. Ultimately, interests on both sides frequently limit possibilities to improve governance (Booth & Cammack, 2013). Governance support seems to run against politics, which really determines developmental outcomes in Africa, as elsewhere (Leftwich, 2005).

Socioeconomic Rights and Development

When donor institutions extend their effort to strengthen rights into the domain of social and economic rights, they address issues within the largest circles of Figure 1. This approach is based on a substantive and maximalist concept of democracy demanding substantive equality and socialeconomic development. Alternatively, this approach may assume that the structural prerequisites for democracy must be addressed, and through addressing them democracy is promoted indirectly. Europe is more prone to approach democracy in this very broad “developmental” way, although it is also part of the U.S. approach, particularly as implemented through USAID (Carothers, 2009). The approach is also evident in the work of the UNDP, as can be read in its report of 2000, which focused on human rights and development and of 2002 on “deepening democracy.” Much in line with UNDP’s overall focus on human development, the report links democracy with economic equality and economic rights. Thus, policies within this approach address equality of opportunity, gender equality, access to markets and social services, employment policies, and income generation projects.

The strength of this approach lies in the effort to address broader structural issues influencing successful long-term democracy, but the other side of the coin is that the broad scope and the orientation to longer-term developmental processes imply a loss of focus and more difficulty in the operationalization into concrete policy instruments that can lead to concrete and immediate results. The approach actually overlaps with the entire field of development aid, and is thus difficult to evaluate separately as a democracy promotion strategy.


In the analysis and evaluation of democracy promotion, both analytical and case studies converge on several broad observations, which evidently hold for Africa. First, while the policy rhetoric on democracy promotion is ever-present and appears to represent a strong normative consensus, the reality often diverges from policy statements and intentions. This observation applies to both negative and positive linkage strategies. Moreover, since the turn of the millennium, democracy promotion has clearly suffered from competing economic and security interests of Western donor governments. Increased challenges have also emerged from the rise of ambiguous and hybrid regimes in Africa and the increased engagement of emerging non-DAC donors with these regimes. The U.S. administration’s outspoken commitment to the national (self-)interest since 2017 further bodes ill for democracy promotion in the near future.

On the application of political conditionality, or negative linkage, results are limited and donor governments’ consistency in application is compromised by their other political or economic interests (Brown, 2005; Olsen, 1998). During the Cold War political interests were concerned with the threat of communism, whereas in the post-9/11 era the fight against terrorism often trumps normative concerns about democracy or human rights. Hence, several authors have addressed the “securitization of aid,” implying a lenient approach toward Ethiopia, Rwanda, or Uganda (see, in particular, Hagmann & Reyntjens, 2016). In cases where security or economic interests do not stand in the way, such as Malawi, the EU was relatively successful in democracy promotion through a combination of negative and positive linkage (Nolting, 2001). However, as the case of Kenya has also shown, reforms may be initially minimal or even cosmetic. Negative linkage tends to focus on narrow electoral reforms.

In the case of positive linkage policies, the record is mixed. In terms of spending, one can ask whether the words are sufficiently matched by the deeds. The actual amounts spent on democracy promotion are still small compared to allocations to military or security issues and overall development assistance. Only 8% of the U.S. budget for African development assistance was directed at democracy and governance, while this percentage for European global development assistance amounts to 2% for the European Commission and less than 15% for several bilateral donors (Azpuru et al., 2008, Youngs, 2008). Crawford (2005) argued that in the case of Ghana, which he considered a “most likely” case for democracy promotion, very little democracy assistance was actually provided by the EU. At the same time, where Western funding of elections and democratic procedures is applied, it creates a certain democratic dependency, which could affect long-term sustainability of democracy (Cheeseman, 2015).

Second, many authors converge on the observation that democracy assistance may help to initiate positive steps toward democracy, but cannot by itself induce long term-democratic change (Brown, 2013; Carothers, 1999, 2006; Cheeseman, 2015; Lawson, 1999). Kelley (2012, p. 169) argued that election monitoring plays a reinforcement role, building on domestic and international factors. Broader long-term changes depend primarily on internal factors and structural conditions. Carothers (1999) argued that democracy assistance did contribute to positive changes where internal conditions are favorable and donor institutions rise on the “learning curve.” The positive changes include the holding of transition and subsequent rounds of elections, reflecting the early focus on elections. Burnell (2011, p. 39) has stated that the “easy victories have been won,” with governmental change by elections having become the norm(although some elections are still flawed and there have been instances of unconstitutional extensions of terms limits). Over time, however, elections help to enhance free democratic competition, increase vertical accountability, and induce a democratic culture, which is in line with Lindberg’s 2009 argument. The advantage of the electoral approach lies in its clear focus and relatively easy operationalization into specific kinds of electoral and political party support. However, clearly this approach suffers from its narrow scope and is unlikely to generate long-term democratic change.

Awareness of the broader issues affecting democratization was present from the start, but has increased as a result of academic analysis of policies and by reports by institutions such as IDEA and UNDP. Policies, therefore, were also aimed at strengthening civil and political rights and the rule of law in a context of liberal constitutionalism. However, this approach still suffers from a tendency to focus on the relatively easy parts, such as core democratic procedures and institutions familiar to Western policymakers, or the “institutional modelling” approach (Carothers, 1999). In the consultations IDEA conducted with African partners, the one-size-fits-all approach was similarly criticized (IDEA, 2009, p. 57). Democracy promotors are still struggling with the hard parts and the more complex and varied political reality that emerged in the late 1990s: What can be done to counter executive dominance, majoritarianism, and the weaknesses of personalist parties? What kinds of institutions work in the African context (Carothers, 2006; Nolting, 2001; van Cranenburgh, 2011)? How should governance support deal with institutional blocks and policy incoherence (Booth & Cammack, 2013)? And how should we deal with the interests and strategies of political elites, in other words, with the politics of democratization?

Some policies may be aimed at increasing social and economic rights, equality, and overall development. Those adhering to a more substantive notion of democracy, or emphasizing socialeconomic prerequisites for democracy, face the toughest job. This approach appeals to those taking an ambitious, longer-term, and structural view, but its Achilles heel is its broad scope and imprecision. The wide scope of the approach also implies it cannot be analyzed and evaluated as a democracy promotion approach.

Returning to the fundamental debate on the weight of structure versus agency in democratic transitions, this policy field seems to support an intermediate position that Hyden (2002) called “structured contingency.” While structural factors such as low levels of economic development and weak states or neopatrimonial politics in Africa limit options and possibilities, some openings emerge in times of regime change that allow specific actors to influence outcomes. Moreover, at such important junctures, institutions that create vertical accountability, such as elections, or institutions that create horizontal accountability are relatively open to reform and may positively affect democratic change. The challenge for Western democracy promotion in Africa is to keenly observe such openings during transitions and identify the opportunities and the actors that can positively impact the direction of change if assisted properly. This is a daunting task in real-life situations such as the situation in Zimbabwe in 2018. A change in leadership does not automatically imply a change in the regime. Any such effort must be underpinned by an analysis combining rigorous political science with deep country-specific expertise and an awareness that democracy promotion is about politics and that the intentions, interests, and power of specific actors affect outcomes decisively. When this awareness informs policy, there is hope for a positive contribution of international democracy promotion in Africa.


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                                                                                                      (1.) This article does not aim to provide a systematic inquiry into effects or impact. For useful approaches in evaluating democracy promotions policies, see Burnell (2011) and Crawford (2005).

                                                                                                      (2.) Electoral observation should be distinguished from electoral supervision, which was implemented by the UN in postconflict or high-profile transition countries, such as Cambodia in 1993 and Namibia in 1989 for the African continent. International supervision of elections goes beyond observation and reporting and implies a role for international actors in the implementation and administrative supervision of the electoral process.