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University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation

Can Democracy Assistance Be Effective in the Age of Authoritarianism?

February 06, 2023
Oren Samet and Susan Hyde


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Oren Samet, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, and Susan Hyde, the Robson Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley, analyze the success of democracy promotion efforts, especially in the case of Cambodia

Western governments today spend billions on international democracy promotion programming, from election support to civic education initiatives. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, this aid was associated with significant democratic development around the world. But the winds have since shifted.

Not only has backsliding among established democracies become a concern, but dictators have gotten better at resisting the forces of democratization and keeping themselves in power, including by erecting barriers to democracy assistance. Democracy promoters have had to adapt to this new reality, increasingly embracing non-confrontational programming that avoids challenging regimes directly.

Many such programs, particularly those that focus on civic education and participation, are designed to operate in contexts that are already democratizing or at least where regimes are genuinely open to reform. When applied to more entrenched authoritarian systems, however, these programs face a potential dilemma. Recognizing the legitimizing value of democratic processes both at home and abroad, dictators may try to leverage the presence of democracy promotion to bolster their own position, using it to provide a veneer of democratic legitimacy to undermine public demand for genuine democratization.

In this new environment, as barriers to programming increase and democratic progress slows, can traditional tools of democracy assistance be effective? And as authoritarian regimes entrench themselves globally and seek to burnish their “democratic” credentials, could democracy promotion efforts be doing more harm than good?

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.