July 29, 2009
The US government’s approach to promoting democracy in other countries is lacking two essential attributes: “local knowledge… of a sort that doesn’t make it up the aid-chain to Washington, and historical perspective,” according to Associate Professor Keith Brown. In a recent article published on openDemocracy.net, Brown describes what he judges to be the structural shortcomings of contemporary democracy-promotion initiatives in the Balkans. He also discusses related issues in a short video below.
As part of his anthropological research on democracy promotion, Brown last year focused on mapping and evaluating the progress of one of the many initiatives funded by the United States Agency for International Development to “build civil society” in the Balkans. Specifically, he studied the projects implemented by the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities and other “community-oriented civil-society organizations” that received funding from the ISC. Of US agencies in general, Brown says that they adopt to their detriment “a version of history which casts the former eastern-bloc Europe as home to apathetic subjects of socialism, awaiting transformation into active citizens.”
In his article, Brown relates a story from his personal experiences researching in Macedonia to highlight how the principles and ideals of democracy-promotion policy often conflict with the messy realities of a post-socialist and historically conflict-ridden region like the Balkans.
In the summer of 2008, Brown and his co-researchers traveled to the southwestern city of Prilep to meet with a group of democracy-promotion professionals from an ISC-funded organization and discuss their experiences in the city. Seated in a modern conference room – “surrounded by the trappings of institutional stability and longevity” – Brown and his co-researchers were party to a conversation among professionals the tone of which was confident, technical, and optimistic. As regards the organization’s efforts in the area, the researchers were treated to what Brown describes as the expected, self-praising “success story.”
Later in the same day, however, another meeting – this time bringing together a group of Macedonian politicians and citizens from Prilep’s Roma population and a group of democracy-promotion professionals working in the recipient community – revealed a more complex, ambiguous and troubling picture of efforts in the area than the first meeting alone would have suggested.
While the democracy-promotion professionals in attendance spoke of the importance of “multi-constituency collaboration” and the need for local government to implement a recently approved Community Action Plan, Brown writes, the Roma politicians declared themselves impatient with “NGO-talk” and named unemployment, not the lack of a robust civil society, as their constituents’ most pressing problem. Recalling the concerns of the local politicians with whom he conversed, Brown writes, “They repeatedly stressed the paramount importance of foreign investment in new factories… Only the provision of basic financial security to families, they said, would create the conditions for the next generation to stay in school, and thereby at least move toward genuine opportunity and inclusion.”
In addition to his broader critique of contemporary policy-making, Brown also reserves critical words for the cadre of democracy-promotion and development professionals who comprise the human element in the democracy-promotion “aid-chain.” These “trainers, mediators and managers,” Brown writes, are agents in a veritable “industry” – wherein methods of evaluating the countless civil-society building efforts have been routinized and professionalized and the evaluators proceed in their work overly reassured by “certificates of participation in multiple trainings and accreditation from national and international authorities.”
Overall, Brown sees the democracy-promotion in general as suffering from “a contemporary, culturally over-determined failure of imagination.”
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Tristan Humble ‘09