Funding Virtue: Civil society aid and democracy promotion – Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers (eds)

Many donors, public and private, national and multinational, American, European and Canadian, now emphasize the strengthening of democracy and civil society. The role of civil society is therefore expanding rapidly in the political, economic and social dimensions.

But how much is the aid in this field actually accomplishing? This is the question addressed by Funding Virtues. In their attempt to answer it, the editors approached a group of talented experts in the field of civil society aid, on both the giving and the receiving side, and asked them to address the following questions: What concepts of civil society do aid providers employ, and how do these concepts relate to local realities in the recipient countries? Where do the programmes make a difference, and where do they fall short? How can civil society aid be improved?

The essays in this book conclude that advocacy NGOs are considered by pro-democratic aid providers as the critical segment of civil society. They are seen as incubators of innovation and reform. They often have the flexibility, creativity, dedication and independence that government institutions lack, and they reflect the actual needs of society. Moreover, it is much easier for donors to assist professional NGOs than other kinds of groups or civil society institutions.

The concept of apolitical engagement in relation to civil society aid is dismissed as a mirage. Donors can affect the political development of recipient countries without direct intervention in politics by fostering non-partisan civic advocacy by NGOs. Furthermore, donors will not support civil society groups whose leaders are not sympathetic to the donor’s policies.

The book contains insightful analysis of the impact of aid programmes. In his chapter about Asia, Stephen Golub distinguishes between ‘democracy with a Big D’, which is directed towards formal systems of governance, and ‘democracy with a small d’, which blends with socioeconomic progress. He concludes that USAID should support ‘small d’ over ‘Big D’ institutions and that democracy should be linked with development and with easing people’s difficult daily lives.

In assessing civil society-based approaches to democracy promotion, Imco Brouwer divides the impact of aid into three levels: impact on individuals and specific organizations – the micro level; impact on development of an active civil society – the  meso level; and finally the macro level, impact on political regimes.

The differentiation between outcome and output in assessing impact is also fundamental. Whereas output is easy to measure, outcome is much harder. Outcome, however, is what actually matters. Any assessment of the impact of aid programmes, therefore, depends considerably on the level of analysis and measurements used.

The book brings together valuable ideas, practical experiences and the most up-to-date literature in this field. The elegantly synthesized case studies, from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, set out the principal challenges facing democracy promotion that lie ahead.

Ghassan Sayah is Chairman of the Board of the Lebanese Forum for Parliamentary Dialogue, a founding member of the Lebanese NGO Forum and CEO of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of Lebanon. He can be contacted by email at ghass@ymca-leb.org.lb

Funding Virtue: Civil society aid and democracy promotion
Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers (eds) Carnegie Endowment for International Peace $21.95 (paperback)

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