Importing Democracy

Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina

Nothing has so discredited the attempt to export democracy militarily as the Iraq and Afghan wars. Both Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that democracy must be built from within. Even peaceful efforts to export democracy often flounder on the shoals of simplistic western visions of other societies.

A common response to this failure is to assume that many countries are simply not suited to democracy, at least for the foreseeable future. This book is about three countries where some citizens refuse to be so easily dismissed, and have already initiated the long, arduous process of democratization from within. They build on democratic traditions, particularly at the local level. But they also import powerful democratic ideas such as accountability and the concept of a loyal opposition.

Argentina, South Africa and Tajikistan all have viable civil societies. Within these civil societies, some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) labor in the vineyard of democracy. These NGOs serve as the comparative lens for observing wider processes of democratization.

Iraq and Afghanistan not only highlight the failure to export democracy, they also remind us that elections, even if they can be made relatively honest, do not equal democracy. In fact, the organizations described here are engaged in everything from setting up community radio stations to teaching local police about human rights to strengthening civil society as a potential loyal opposition.

While taking account of the impact on democracy of civil society, broadly defined, this book focuses on the more specific impact of democratization NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina. It is based on 90 field interviews, 84 of which were with the leaders of indigenous NGOs that focus primarily on a wide range of programs to strengthen democracy. While these deliberate attempts at democratization are at best part of a fragmented, long-term journey, their wide scope has achieved tangible democratic advances within both societies and governments.

The meaning of democracy has been discussed, debated and revised for at least two millennia. Free elections continue to be seen as a necessary, if insufficient, ingredient of democratization, but the rise of civil society has led scholars to extend and deepen definitions of democracy. One definition, however, designed around stricter political boundaries and more formal institutions, is useful in that it focuses on democratic processes as central components of democracy. Robert Dahl's (1972) definition of "polyarchy" includes three dimensions – political opposition, public participation and law-based civil liberty.1 A fourth dimension, a democratic political culture, was defined by March and Olson (1995) as the increasing capacity of the political system to adapt to change and to deepen democracy.2 Although adaptability is related to opposition, public participation and law- based civil liberty; a democratic political culture is a crucial asset in sustaining democracy, once it develops.

These four dimensions are used to explore the work of democratization NGOs. By comparing the democratic impact of civil society as a whole with the impact of democratization NGOs, this approach addresses a missing piece of the research puzzle. It also explores the indirect causal pathway between democratization NGOs and democracy that runs through civil society by strengthening its role as loyal opposition. Finally, it compares the ways that democratization NGOs deal with strengthening democratic processes in different national contexts and thereby explores the varieties and meanings of democracy.

For an annotated table of contents, click here.