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Dictatorship to Democracy: Two Complementary Points of View

Some weeks ago I read The Dictator’s Learning Curve:
Inside the Global Battle for Democracy
, by William J. Dobson. As I now await page proofs of my own book, I am convinced that Dobson’s book and mine are strangely complementary and that his book rounds out my own intellectual journey. And I can’t help wondering if Dobson would have the same reaction were he to read my manuscript.

Dobson’s is the darker story, since he argues persuasively that dictators, in response to democracy advocates, have gotten smarter. In Venezuela, for example, President Hugo Chavez has become adept at using frequent elections for his own purposes. Like me, however, Dobson also writes about the battle for democracy.
His focus is on powerful global players. Among these are Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institution, whose short bestseller From Dictatorship to Democracy has already appeared in 25 languages. Equally important is the Serbian international NGO Otpor(Resistance) that grew out of revolution against Slobodan Milosovic. Otpor trains activists in other countries to figure out their own creative strategies for promoting non-violent revolutions against dictators.
My focus, in contrast, is on democratization NGOs at the national level. Although Importing Democracy is based on 103 interviews with activists in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina, these organizations are common in many other countries. The leaders of democratization NGOs generally expect and are prepared for a long, hard slog as they put in place the pieces of the democratic puzzle. An NGO coalition in Tajikistan, for example, forced the government to crack down on sex trafficking to Dubai. An NGO in Argentina used public deliberation to help a squatter community solve the problem of garbage collection. And in South Africa, an NGO is pushing the government to broaden and implement the freedom of information law to improve service provision for poor communities. This is occurring in flawed democracies – Argentina and South Africa, as well as in authoritarian regimes like Tajikistan. Unfortunately, democratization NGOs in these countries and elsewhere are not always in strategic contact with each other or with street protestors activated by social media. Nor, I suspect, after reading Dobson’s book, are democratization NGOs routinely in contact with the global democratic players that he describes.

Despite the wave of democratic change that began in 1974 with the overthrow of António de Oliveira Salazarin Portugal, Dobson is quick to acknowledge that there is nothing inevitable about the overthrow of dictators or the progress of political freedom.
But, as he concludes, “my optimism grew as I sat down to meet with the people who had committed themselves to fight for these freedoms…They were not blind idealists…They were accomplished strategists, propagandists and political analysts.”
I share Dobson’s optimism, based on my own interviews. There is, to quote from Hamlet, “more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy…” – a sobering reminder that seeing through a glass less darkly requires reading what challenges and expands our own expertise.

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