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Democracy and Good Governance in Africa: Potential Implications of the Millennium Challenge Account and the New Partnership for Africa's Development

October 17, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

What we know:

The Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) highlight the important question of the role that criteria relating to democracy should play in decisions about granting development assistance.

The MCA represents a historic increase in foreign assistance, with that assistance directed at countries that meet three broad criteria – investing in people, encouraging economic freedom, and ruling justly. President Bush specifically mentioned good governance – defined as respect for human rights, adherence to the rule of law, and routing out corruption as important determinants of where the U.S. government will invest its resources. He did not specifically mention democracy.

Some analysts look at the question of whether democracy should be an MCA criterion in terms of whether foreign assistance can be effective at reducing poverty, improving healthcare, and increasing education opportunities – all goals of the MCA – in the absence of democracy. The existing evidence is inconclusive. Some countries have seen growth and poverty reduction in the absence of democracy – Korea, Taiwan, and China are such examples. Uganda, although not a democracy, has made significant progress on its primary education program, its HIV/AIDs programs, and its broader economic issues. On the other hand, U.S. foreign assistance experience in such countries as Egypt, Somalia, and Cambodia has shown that assistance efforts which ignore democracy, human rights, and governance concerns have not done well. In other words, the jury is still out.

Therein lies the dilemma with making democracy a criterion of the MCA if one looks at the question from a development perspective. The other way to look at the question, however, is from a values standpoint. U.S. policy has always valued and promoted democracy in and of itself. It would be imprudent to leave democracy by the wayside in the MCA simply because one cannot prove that it is a prerequisite for economic growth. It is right for the U.S. government to say democracy is something it finds important and something which it believes factors into development. Moreover, good governance defined narrowly as that related to the purview of good policies and laws related to economic growth, ignores the political realities and determinants of how to achieve adherence to the rule of law, progress against corruption, and respect for human rights. Democracy is thus also important for the human rights, rule of law, and anti-corruption goals of the MCA.

In the absence of democracy as a specific MCA criterion, the question becomes how best to elaborate the "ruling justly" criterion. Many groups think that the ruling justly criteria should be defined holistically. A coalition of individuals from the democracy, human rights, and development communities outlined possible criteria indicators in a letter to President Bush in July 2002. These included freedom of expression and the media, freedom of association, the right to choose representatives through free and fair elections, independence of the judiciary, and primacy of the rule of law. While elections do not necessarily translate into perfect economic policies, without some system by which people can choose and remove their leaders and processes that facilitate ongoing participation in governmental decision-making, gains in civil liberties will be steadily eroded and improvement in anti-corruption initiatives and rule of law will be short-lived.

Once the criteria and indicators have been established, the next issue at hand is how to weigh them in evaluating a country's eligibility. Each of the three groups of criteria will probably have four or five indicators, producing a total of about fifteen indicators. Different systems of weighing these indicators produce slightly different results in terms of the countries that do and do not qualify for MCA funding. The key question is whether or not countries will be expected to meet all fifteen indicators to qualify for funding. If they are expected to do so, the standards by which those indicators are evaluated would have to be relatively low; if they are not, then certain criteria, most probably governing justly, may be skirted. The results would be rather different by the two scenarios, as would the effectiveness of the MCA.

NEPAD is a different story. It has been hailed as the first development initiative created by Africans themselves, by which they pledge to eradicate poverty, foster socioeconomic development, and foster democracy and good governance. They have committed themselves to meeting specific standards related to democracy and good governance, and to a peer review process to monitor the enforcement of those standards in the region. The peer review would be carried out by a panel of eminent persons who would first undertake a base review of countries that have committed themselves to the review process. The reviews would be held every two to four years unless an urgent crisis emerged or a participant state requested an early review.

With NEPAD, Africans seem to be committing to take the kind of steps the MCA envisions. The initiative is very promising in many ways, but there are concerns about how tough the peer review process will be. There has also been much concern from civil society groups and parliamentarians that they have been excluded from the top-down NEPAD process. In addition, there are questions about the NEPAD governance structure itself. Together with the democracies on the fifteen-country NEPAD implementation committee are non-democracies, such as Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia. It is unclear how serious such countries will be about adherence to democratic standards. In the process of being so inclusive, NEPAD undermines some of the strength behind its original idea, which was to distinguish African countries making progress on governance and economic issues from those that are not. The handling of the Zimbabwe situation has been particularly worrisome. There was no official condemnation by the African Union or by NEPAD of President Robert Mugabe's controversial land seizures policy.

In sum, while NEPAD and the MCA are promising initiatives, which demonstrate how widely democracy and good governance have been accepted as priorities, the details of their implementation continue to cast a shadow of uncertainty.

What we do not know:

Even once the MCA criteria indicators are decided, certain questions remain, and these questions are critical to analyzing how the MCA will affect democracy in Africa and elsewhere.

How will measurement of compliance occur? Who will make the determinations as to which countries have met the standards and by what data? There is concern about the kinds of U.S. government bureaucratic distortions that can occur in any kind of evaluation process. (Embassies, missions, and regional bureaus within the government may sometimes distort measurements of performance to ensure that their countries of concern receive the bulk of assistance).

What level of compliance will be considered acceptable? Will there be a threshold of some sort; how low or high will it be? Will we be looking for number of years in practice of certain measures? How long should the changes be in place? The concern is that countries are likely to pass a certain number of cosmetic measures to get funds.

How do the criteria and indicators interact? Must countries meet all three criteria – investing in people, encouraging economic freedom, and ruling justly – or just some of them? The concern from a democracy standpoint is that the countries will meet the economic indicators while the governance indicators will be given a pass.

Once countries are selected to receive MCA funds, how does one support governance initiatives within those countries? Should countries write their own proposals, or should these be designed by the U.S. government?

What are the next steps; what should be done and by whom?

The MCA will only affect an estimated fifteen countries. Below these will be a larger group of countries that just missed the qualification, and below those, countries that still have a long way to go. The United States must concern itself with these non-qualifying countries as well, particularly those that just missed the MCA funding. As part of the broader foreign assistance issue, the government must think about the kinds of activities and initiatives that will help these countries meet MCA criteria in future years.

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