Trouble Is, Democracy Aid Works

The trouble with democracy assistance is that it works.

When you go to a country that has a one party state ruled by a strongman for decades, the fastest way to remove him is to allow free press, election monitors and opposition party training; and to improve the skills of the police, prosecutors and judges.

So when U.S. aid funds in Russia went to just such details, Vladimir Putin had a hissy fit and tossed the USAID mission out last week.

For the past 10 years under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, U.S. foreign aid has reduced funds for food, medicine and education. Instead, more than $1 billion a year went to democracy assistance.

Such aid led to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where the government ran a crooked election that was declared invalid after journalists, judges and others trained by USAID programs exposed the corruption voting. Thousands of people camping in central Kiev in freezing weather also helped.

Ethiopia, Belarus and other countries ruled by autocratic leaders quickly saw the threat to their grip on power from these democracy programs and they tossed them out. For years, U.S. and other critics of foreign aid have claimed it was not effective -- that the money was quickly captured by corrupt groups in countries with weak governance.

For once, foreign aid was criticized not for not working but because it worked too well.

I'd reported on many foreign aid problems. In Bangladesh, for example, when USAID improved irrigation networks, greedy parliamentarians got wind of the project, bought up the adjacent land and turned thousands of farmers into landless laborers.

In some countries, U.S. dumping of American rice and wheat aid drove down food prices and bankrupted local farmers.

But if democracy aid does work in many cases, it has created new unforeseen consequences:

-- When the U.S. pressured the Palestinians to hold 2006 elections -- despite warnings that Hamas was likely to win -- Hamas did win and it created a thuggish mini state that was the first Islamic state to come to power through elections. Now Hamas lobs rockets into Israel and teaches its children to prepare for jihad, not peace.

-- When the Orange Revolution drove the old communist party from power in Ukraine, the new democrats proved not too effective as a government. So in the next election the old guard came back to power.

-- Now Hillary Clinton went to Bahrain in 2010 and urged the Arab states to move to democracy. They did, and the result is Libya in flames, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Cairo and Tunis, and U.S. interests are going swiftly down the toilet. U.S. officials who have worked promoting democracy abroad tell me that most people want freedom to choose their leaders and to hold them accountable at the ballot box, if not the courts. But some countries and cultures are not comfortable with the in-your-face criticism that comes with Western-style democracy.

In one West African country where I was teaching journalism techniques in the 1990s, a reporter said to me: "But in your country you are not allowed to call the president a thief, are you?"

My answer included the story of the Watergate break in. But I also know that if some reporter tried to write a similar story in many Third World countries, they would face death or destitution. Watergate worked in America because our laws, police, prosecutors and free press protected individual writers. This is not so in many developing countries. And if you leap ahead and force them to hold free elections, there is no way to take the next steps and liberate courts, police and governments of corruption, nepotism, racism and ethnic bias.

Look at Ukraine. For a moment it stood out as a picture-perfect successful peaceful revolution. In 2004, when the government announced its candidate had won the election, a widely respected independent think tank funded by USAID released a poll that disputed that result.

Then an independent television station went on air from the main square in Kiev demanding that the election be declared invalid; stolen. The TV broadcaster had been trained by USAID and brought to the United States to learn how U.S. stations covered politics.

Then election observers trained by foreign aid and sent from Europe questioned the official results of the election.

Democracy trainers from Serbia, Slovakia, Russia and Croatia were brought to Ukraine to train independent political parties and candidates on campaigning, fundraising and political research.

Local reporters trained by USAID and European journalism programs covered the disputed election and the mass sit-in that took place the week after the election. They set up press clubs in many cities so that reporters could question government and opposition officials.

And when the new government took office, members of parliament, prosecutors, judges and others trained by the American Bar Association in Ukraine and in the United States refused to accept a tainted election.

Putin and other autocrats thought U.S. support for democracy amounted to organized, foreign efforts to change the governments of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Egypt. They fear the goal is to stand up governments that are U.S.-friendly.

Well, he has sort of got it right. U.S. aid programs do breathe life into opposition movements. They have gone so far in one central Asian country as to import a printing press and provide newsprint for opposition newspapers along with training for election monitors and parliamentarians.

All this is aimed at creating a mirror image of U.S. political systems. In the end, it means that every leader must either step down at the end of his or her term and be replaced by a new face from the party that wins the most votes.

That would mean the end of one-man and one-party rule as we see it in Russia, China, Vietnam, Belarus, Ethiopia, Uganda and dozens of other countries.

However some countries are used to one man rule. Some of them like to rally round the leader on the white horse, the xenophobe who warns of foreign threats. These countries seem unable to prevent their leaders from consolidating power once in office, closing off the media to all opposition voices, blocking opposition candidates from running for office because of some technical problem, and remaining in power year after year through blatantly unfair elections.

So if Putin allowed USAID to continue to spend $40 million a year largely on groups promoting democracy, honest journalism and opposition parties, he would be signing his own resignation.