Supporting Democratic Transitions Deserves a Prominent Role in Upcoming Summit for Democracy

In early December, the Biden administration will convene a two-day Summit for Democracy with over 100 heads of state from around the world. The three key themes of the summit include defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and advancing respect for human rights. These are undoubtedly critical issues that deserve the attention of world leaders and underpin the struggle for democratic primacy. Notably missing on the agenda is how best to support countries that experience breakthroughs from autocracy to democracy. Over the course of the last year, a number of promising democratic transitions have experienced dramatic setbacks and potential reversals.   

On Monday, October 26, simmering tensions between the military and civilian leadership of the Sudanese transitional government came to a boiling point and the military launched a coup d’état. Much of the progress of Sudan’s democratic transition slipped away in a mere 24 hours. Unfortunately, this is not the only democratic transition that has lost ground over the last year. In July, Tunisian president Kais Saied abruptly suspended parliament, calling into question the only remaining bright spot from the Arab Spring. In February, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized control of the government just as the new parliament dominated by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was set to open.

In under a year, three of the most promising democratic transitions of the last decade experienced serious setbacks. The Covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly played a role in these reversals. It has disrupted even the most advanced of economies, let alone those struggling to gain footing amid profound political shifts. Despite this, the pandemic alone cannot be blamed for the current predicament that is facing these three nations. The circumstances should prompt the U.S. government to reevaluate how U.S. foreign assistance can better support countries that experience democratic breakthroughs.   

The United States invested substantial resources in attempt to tilt the scale in favor of democracy in Sudan, Tunisia, and Myanmar. While the Sudanese transition was only in its nascent phase, as soon as a civilian-led government was in place the U.S. government quickly removed Sudan from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST), a designation associated with the genocidal regime of Omar al-Bashir. Following the military coup, the Biden administration froze $700 million in direct assistance to the Sudanese government. In the 10 years since the Jasmine Revolution, the United States invested more than $1.4 billion in Tunisia to support civil society, democratic institutions, economic prosperity, and security. In Myanmar, the ruling military junta began to loosen its grip on power by undertaking a series of reforms and entering a power-sharing agreement with Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011. Since that time the United States has spent an estimated $1.5 billion to support democratic and economic liberalization in Myanmar. 

The circumstances under which countries undergo democratic transitions are unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to best assist governments amid these transformations. Nevertheless, the failure to implement structural reforms, deliver on economic transformation, and isolate bad actors undoubtedly contributed to the failure to consolidate democratic gains in Myanmar, Tunisia, and Sudan. While a successful transition must be driven by the citizenry in a given country, there are tools the United States and the international community of democracies have at their disposal to support and empower democratic actors in these circumstances.     

In all of these cases, the United States failed to leverage its investment in these countries to push for key systematic and political reforms that could have prevented democratic backsliding. In all three of the cases at hand, civil society and democratic-minded actors were already pushing for reforms that would have addressed critical flaws in the system and could have helped to consolidate these transitions. This is not to suggest that all aid be strictly conditioned or that policymakers should push reforms that do not have local support. The U.S. government and the international community can play a key role in supporting those pushing for change from within and help create space for them to operate. Several tools can be deployed to accomplish this. 

  • Linking the removal of sanctions to key structural and institutional reforms. Once a democratic transition occurs, there is often a rush to remove sanctions aimed at punishing the previous authoritarian government. This is understandable. New leaders are often under immense pressure to deliver economically to their constituencies and gain domestic and international credibility. Installing a sanctions regime is a lengthy and complicated process. Once sanctions are unraveled, reinstating them is extremely challenging. The international community should instead leverage sanctions removal to ensure the implementation of reforms critical for the success of an enduring democratic transition.

    For example, in both Myanmar and Sudan, the removal of sanctions and SST designation should have been linked to the military stepping back from formal civilian-controlled government institutions. Instead, the military was allowed to maintain a substantial stake in the government and acted as a spoiler by undermining democratic-minded actors and staging coups to retake control of the government.  

  • Equipping newly elected and appointed government leaders with skills to govern. In countries that have endured long periods of autocratic rule, it is difficult for a new cadre of leaders with limited experience in the public sector to govern effectively. Indeed, making the switch from protest to politics can be challenging, particularly for those who have no experience living in a democracy. Fledgling democratic governments need technical assistance and training.

    Countries that have more recently undergone democratic transitions can provide key support in this arena. In a survey of civil society activists who went into government following a political transition, one individual stated, “There is a lack of local expertise in managing political transitions in most countries. So establishing technical alliances with international organizations can be of great help in having access to best practices, experience, and external support.”  

  • Investing in robust civil society. While many multilateral and development institutions focus on providing assistance to government structures, investment in developing a robust civil society is sometimes overlooked. Institutions are critical. Yet, without a civil society sector to monitor and hold the government accountable, educate and inform citizens, and develop policy recommendations, even the most sophisticated democratic institutions cannot function properly. A 2020 Government Accountability Office examination of democracy assistance to Tunisia found that of the $91.9 million allocated between 2015 and 2018, $30.3 million went to supporting civil society.

    However, what is difficult to discern is how much of that funding actually went to local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as opposed to international NGOs and contractors. More transparency is needed surrounding where U.S. aid dollars ultimately go. The Modernizing Foreign Affairs Network has developed key principles and recommendations for the U.S. Agency for International Development for best engaging and supporting local civil society. The best solutions to problems facing a nation are often found by those living within its borders. Creating space to support and empower solutions and reforms driven by civil society is essential.

  • Incentivizing investment and expanding economic opportunities. Oftentimes, the grievances that mobilize citizens to demand a change in the system are economic. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and subsequent Arab Spring started after a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in desperation after authorities continually interfered in his ability to run his small business. The protests that sparked the transition in Sudan began due to popular frustration over the rising food prices. Once a transition occurs, citizens expect their new government to deliver for them. Providing both the financial and technical support to revitalize depressed or stagnant economies can help build credibility and goodwill in transitional situations.

    This can be challenging in countries such as Myanmar and Sudan, where sanctions provide important leverage for reform as discussed above. In these circumstances, the United States can work with multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to mobilize economic support. However, it is also incumbent on the fledgling government to manage the expectations of its citizenry.

  • Sustaining engagement. Policy in the United States is often driven by headlines and election cycles. Too often, the U.S. government is quick to respond immediately following a transition, but as events develop and administrations and congressional majorities change, attention is diverted to the latest crisis or new priorities. Consolidating a democratic transition can take up to a generation, and U.S. policymakers must develop long-term strategies for these scenarios. One, even two elections do not consolidate a transition, and U.S. support for these countries should look beyond the immediate situation and plan for the long term. Using U.S. foreign assistance dollars as a metric, these patterns become clear.

    Tunisia saw a spike in U.S. foreign assistance in fiscal year 2012 after the Jasmine Revolution, then saw a steady decline over the next two years. Since then, it has been on the rise, but it was not until FY 2017 that assistance surpassed the FY 2012 level. This pattern of an immediate increase in foreign aid in the wake of a transition, followed by a decline in resources thereafter also plays out when looking at transitions in other parts of the world as well. For example, U.S. investment in Kyrgyzstan reached a high of $128 million in FY 2010, the year of the country’s second “color revolution.” In FY 2019, the United States gave only $43 million in foreign aid to the Central Asian nation, and meanwhile, its status in Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom in the World report declined from “partly free” to “not free” for the first time in 10 years. Similarly, U.S. assistance to Ukraine increased from $255 million to $307 million in FY 2014 following the Maidan Revolution before declining to $273 million in FY 2015. It wasn’t until Russia invaded Crimea in 2016 that U.S. assistance to Ukraine spiked to $518 million, and it has been on the rise since that time.

Coordination with democratic allies and partners on all of these fronts is key. The Summit for Democracy is an ideal forum to explore how to accomplish this. If the ultimate goal is to expand the ranks of democratic nations, supporting democratic breakthroughs when and where they occur deserves a prominent role on the agenda. 

Elizabeth Hoffman is the director of congressional and government affairs and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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