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Bargain Hunting for Aspiring Commanders in Chief

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President Buhari at a campaign rally in Nigeria in January 2015. Photo by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Flickr/Creative Commons).

The 2016 presidential candidates should think twice before dismissing U.S. financial support for democracy abroad, particularly if they’re looking to save money.

During the long American presidential campaign season, contenders from both political parties will be tempted to regard U.S. efforts to bolster democracy abroad as wasteful and best abandoned. The so-called Arab Spring went belly up, leaving ossified autocracies and monarchies to muzzle dissent in the name of containing extremists. At the global level, for 10 years in a row, more nations have declined than improved on political rights and civil liberties, according to the annual Freedom in the World report.

Yet the candidates—especially those concerned about defense spending or government being too large and costly—need to recognize that democracy support is a financial bargain that pays off richly in key places.

Government funding for democracy assistance has already fallen, to $2.3 billion today from $3.5 billion seven years ago. Even in the region receiving the most U.S. development assistance, Africa, the focus of democracy aid has narrowed, with 70 percent going to only six countries. Luckily, one of those was Nigeria. Last year, voters in Africa’s most populous country and largest economy replaced President Goodluck Jonathan with Muhammadu Buhari, who has since begun to fulfill campaign pledges to address the country’s twin problems: corruption and the sadistic violence of Boko Haram.

The fact that U.S. nonprofits helped Nigeria’s civil society and monitored its elections made a difference. The taxpayer-funded effort helped to avert what has often happened in other African nations—violence during and after elections, and refusal by the losing side to accept the results.

In Myanmar, recent elections have handed power to the party of former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, whose last victory 25 years earlier was quashed by a military junta. Again, the U.S. lifeline to dissidents and activists who long suffered under the junta’s thumb made a difference.

After steadfast pressure from the United States and other democracies elicited reforms by the junta, modest U.S. funding—about $18 million—strengthened democratic voices. It helped to improve the legal framework for elections; supported voter registration, polling procedures, and election observation; and aided the professionalization of the election commission, political parties, civil society, and the media. Freedom House used U.S. funding to assist over 100 civil society groups in collaborating to reform Myanmar’s law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), even as other states all over the world passed new restrictions on such groups.

On top of what it has already accomplished, U.S. democracy assistance can do much more for Myanmar. It can help democracy succeed by building respect between religious and ethnic groups. It can help citizens push their new leaders to end atrocities against Rohingya Muslims and attacks on Kachin Christians. Other countries have similar problems and could benefit from similar support.

Democracy assistance can also serve clear-cut U.S. interests closer to home. Drug trafficking, criminal violence, impunity, and corruption have spurred many thousands of people to migrate from Central America to the United States. A sustained effort to address those ills would allow rule of law and democracy to exist in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador not only in name but in practice. And that in turn would advance not just U.S. values, but concrete goals like regional stability and legal commerce.

While stability in the Middle East and North Africa may be farther off, the one clear success story of the Arab Spring urgently needs attention. Tunisia, with its new constitution and free elections, could demonstrate that democracy is able to flourish in the region, and that Islamists are capable of becoming peaceful, conciliatory elected leaders

Yet U.S. democracy assistance for Tunisia declined in the 2015 budget. If the United States and its democratic allies do not step up to the plate with even modest help to boost Tunisian civil society and legislative capacity, the country’s leaders may begin to take antidemocratic shortcuts to address mounting security, social, and economic challenges, ultimately weakening the system that has emerged since 2011 and exacerbating instability.

American support for civil society abroad does not mean installing democracy by invasion. It is not meddling in domestic politics. It is standing by and helping local civic forces as they seek reform and build democracy for themselves—at little expense to the United States. Fiscal responsibility requires focusing on programs that work at a bargain price, rather that jettisoning them for negligible short-term savings and then dealing with the more costly problems that stem from a lack of democracy down the road. Any clear-thinking woman or man aspiring to the Oval Office should be willing to make that case.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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