During the last three decades of the 20thCentury the number of democracies in the world almost doubled, from 44 to 86, according to Freedom House, a New York City think tank that researches and tracks democracy. This dramatic global trend coincided with and was reinforced by a global associational revolution, as thousands of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) emerged in Asia, Latin America and Africa, even before the spread of the Internet. In the first decade of the new century, however, the number of democracies (87) barely increased at all.
The Arab Spring of 2011 ushered in a wave of optimism that the Internet would help turns the tide against autocrats everywhere. More pessimistic observers cautioned, however, that Arab countries generally have neither strong political institutions nor strong civil societies.
A year later, even the idea of democracy is under assault in the Middle East, a disturbing trend exemplified by the dissolution of the newly elected parliament in Egypt. Even the election of a president has been clouded by his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor does civil society offer much hope for the Egyptian political future. Many of Egypt’s NGOs, unlike indigenous NGOs in the rest of the world, were financially dependent on the government and have struggled to assert their autonomy since Mubarak’s fall.
Meanwhile, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is not only the Internet that provides hope for the future of democracy. Although the development of civil society often strengthens democracy indirectly, NGOs with a specialized programmatic interest in promoting democracy have emerged recently in many countries. They are engaged in everything from monitoring elections to re-training police in human rights, from promoting public deliberation in local communities to pushing governments to become more accountable and transparent. These organizations combine imported democratic ideas with the recovery of traditional democratic practices, often common at the local level. They also understand that democratization is a long, hard slog that must encompass more than elections.
Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina, based on over 100 interviews, focuses on the work of these organizations in two struggling democracies (Argentina and South Africa) and one autocracy (Tajikistan). An appendix describes democratization NGOs in 15 other countries.
Given the lack of strong civil societies in the Middle East, it seems unlikely that the promise of the Arab Spring will be fulfilled, with the possible exception of Tunisia. However, in many other countries, the combination of democratization NGOs and online social networking offer powerful possibilities for advancing democracy.