U.S. assistance for democracy building still working, Vanderbilt-Pittsburgh study controls for “Iraq Effect”

Devoting American dollars to democracy building in foreign countries continues to bring measurable increases in democratic governance around the globe, according to a study by Vanderbilt University and University of Pittsburgh professors.

The latest report, which looks at the impact of U.S. foreign assistance on democracy building from 1990 to 2004 in 165 nations, was presented at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The researchers found that USAID democracy assistance has the greatest effect in countries that have the greatest socio-economic need. More specifically, democracy assistance works better in countries with lower levels of development and that are more socially divided. Democracy assistance also works best when the political culture of the country is more receptive to it – countries where there is greater social trust and citizens are more engaged in politics. On the other hand, when countries receive large amounts of U.S. military assistance, the impact of democracy assistance is considerably reduced.

“In general, the results remain consistent with our previous findings, but the effect of ‘Democracy and Governance’ programs on democracy building has become smaller,” said Mitchell Seligson, Centennial Professor of Political Science and a fellow of the Center for the Americas at Vanderbilt. “The overall reduced impact of democracy assistance is explained mostly by the unusually high level of democratic governance investment in Iraq in 2004,” Seligson said. “The large amount of money spent on democracy building in Iraq was not followed by an equivalent rise in the democracy scores in the quantitative study.”

He further explained that democracy assistance is less effective in a nation when the United States provides a larger amount of military assistance there. Iraq received 23 percent of U.S. security assistance in 2004. The average eligible country received six- tenths of one percent in security assistance. Iraq was also the largest recipient of democracy assistance in 2004 with 31 percent of all funds spent.

The other researchers were C. Neal Tate, professor and chair of political science at Vanderbilt; Steven E. Finkel, the Daniel H. Wallace Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh; and Anibal Pérez-Liñán, associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

The previous report covered the post-Cold War period from 1990 to 2003, and the new one, titled “Deepening Our Understanding of the Effects of U.S. Foreign Assistance on Democracy Building,” extends that data by one year and enriches the analysis with many new indicators. Composite indices used by researchers to determine the level of democracy in a particular country include: free elections, human rights, civil society, free media and governance.

The researchers developed a sophisticated statistical model to try to explain changes in nations’ level of democracy that can be attributed to spending by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The assistance is measured as allocated total dollars for each country and is broken down into four main areas: elections and political process, rule of law, civil society and governance. Among the findings, increasing the governance funding by $10 million a year raised the government score by about seven-tenths of a point on a 100-point scale of efficient governance and transparency.

The researchers used data from Freedom House, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes democratic values as one of several measures of each country’s level of democracy, and the Polity IV index, another standard index for democracy measurement. The latest report addresses the previous concern raised that USAID funding might have a tendency to go to countries that appear more likely to embrace democracy, and, therefore, the assistance is not the cause of increased democracy, but the effect.

Seligson said that the researchers did extensive testing controlling for this issue, known as endogeneity or reverse causation. However, the effect of democracy assistance remained consistent. Another finding is that democracy building assistance is more effective when the investment expands over time and remains predictable.

One of the questions addressed in the new study is whether democracy assistance is more effective in some social contexts than others. The study found that the more democratic a nation’s political culture, the stronger the effect of democracy building aid on democracy scores.

Additional data about the impact of U.S. assistance for democracy building on human rights was collected in this report, since that was the only negative effect of aid found in the previous study. “The research provided new insights into institutional and behavioral influences on human rights abuse, but did not change the troubling finding about the negative impact of human rights assistance on respect for human integrity,” said Tate. “We will continue to try to increase our understanding of this issue.”

Seligson emphasized that the overall positive impact of USAID on democracy is clear. “We have analyzed more than 15 years of data to reach our conclusion that democratic governance assistance in the post-Cold War period has worked,” he said. “At a time when some question the role of the United States in promoting democracy around the world, these findings are reassuring.”

Media contact: Ann Marie Owens, (615) 322-NEWS

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