The Donor World Needs a Rethink: Prioritize Democracy

Over the past decade I have had the infinite honor of working alongside some of the bravest human beings on earth, men and women who, quite literally, time and again, have placed their lives in the crosshairs to help make their countries a better place. I have been routinely reminded that a small group of unbowed and dogged individuals can accomplish the seemingly impossible. Several years ago, however, I could not help but feel that my colleagues and I were missing the mark. I knew we were having an impact, but I came to the realization that we were fighting the good fight with one arm tied behind our collective backs. More to the point, we were doing battle against the symptoms of bad leadership and the unacceptable consequences thereof, instead of tackling the causes of these calamities in the first place.

It was this failure to address the baseline sources of the world’s crises that propelled my colleagues and I to form Vanguard Africa three years ago this month. Today, we remain united in the belief that ethical leadership and support to ensure free and fair elections, which accurately reflect the will of the people, are the starting points to achieve the ends that all of us in the broader pro-democracy movement are striving to achieve.

Simply put: a healthy democracy is absolutely essential for boosting the development prospects of a given country, including health and education indicators, as well as its overall economic prospects. The sooner the donor world and its practitioners realizes this simple fact, the better.  

I appreciate that our unique approach can be seen as controversial, namely because it is in fact political. We unabashedly choose sides in the pro-democracy fight. And we are proud of this stance, and most importantly, of our partners on the ground. Today, however, the vast majority of donors — and donor-dependent organizations — undertake a development approach by focusing resources on health and education initiatives, as two key examples (and to be fair, it is easier to “measure” vaccines provided or school books handed out than, say, quantifying ethical leadership). Nevertheless, at Vanguard Africa we consciously strike at the causes of these gaps in the first place. We believe this approach is exceedingly important today, particularly in a world in which repressive leaders – in Africa and elsewhere – have learned to play the “reform game” by absorbing massive external aid while avoiding democratic reform, which often sets a country back for generations and consequently provides an expedient avenue for donors to continue to fill.

This is not to say that development interventions should not take place or be prioritized in certain, emergent circumstances. Stop-gap measures have their value, and they surely improve and save lives, but they should be properly contextualized as tactical measures, and not a feature of long-term strategies. Likewise, this divide between the developmental and political need not represent an insurmountable rift. In fact, development aid and democracy aid can play complementary roles. The latter, however, should be prioritized – especially in terms of funding, where it stands to reason that donors would receive a much bigger return on their investments by focusing on the root causes of democratic backsliding instead of its outgrowths.  

As previously mentioned, two examples that highlight the primacy of investing in democratic foundations, and thus the need to re-think priorities, are the areas of health and the economy.

First, democracy has been shown to improve a nation’s overall health. This is because democratic governments are inherently more open, more accountable and transparent, as well as protective of media freedom, which in turn allows leaders to be more responsive and use the resultant feedback to improve quality of services. Unsurprisingly, democratic nations are also more likely to increase their own spending on health care and boost a country’s economic growth in the long-term (as opposed to diverting limited resources to entrench their stay in power or to rig elections).

Second, and relatedly, there is increasingly strong evidence that democracy is positively associated with a stronger economy when compared to non-democratic counterparts. Interestingly, this democratic advantage is especially pronounced for African countries that have remained democratic for longer periods of time. A report by the Institute for Security Studies, for example, found that democracy steadily contributes to development, good governance and economic growth. Crucially, these outcomes are only achieved when key components of electoral democracy – namely, free and fair elections – are the norm. Another report by the Center for International Private Enterprise notes that because democracies are accountable to the public, rather than the political elite, they are more likely to maintain the rule of law and produce public goods. More often than not, autocrats and other abusive leaders fail to implement reforms to sustain economic growth because, quite simply, they are not held accountable and thus have no incentive to act in the public interest.

The evidence is clear: development outcomes are in no small part dependent on democratic foundations, which include free and fair elections and support for ethical leaders who help to instill this culture in the first place. A reckoning, and indeed, an honest intellectual overhaul is thus long overdue. The longer the donor world — and practitioners alike — avoid this political reality, the longer their otherwise well-intentioned efforts will come up short and may ultimately prove counterproductive.

Jeffrey Smith is the Founding Director of Vanguard Africa and the Vanguard Africa Foundation, both of which prioritize ethical, pro-democracy leadership and free and fair elections across Africa.