Soft Power: Democracy-Promotion and U.S. NGOs

The U.S. government has several channels for promoting democracy, but a plethora of independent U.S. organizations with that same mandate also exist, with varying degrees of financial dependency on the government.

March 17, 2006

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Introduction

Democracy-promotion has long been an aspect of U.S. foreign policy, but it became a central component after September 11. The U.S. government has several channels for promoting democracy, most notably the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) and Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI); and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provides funds to nations that already meet certain democratic standards. But a plethora of U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also exist for this purpose, with varying degrees of financial dependency on the government. In recent years, their budgets have increased dramatically. Their activities include election-monitoring, educating citizens about their rights, and working with legislators, judges, and the media.

What is the value of independent organizations promoting democracy?

NGOs "think differently and have a different perspective and different analysis from the State Department," says Thomas O. Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House and author of the report, "The Democracy Bureaucracy: The Infrastructure of American Democracy Promotion." While their work often overlaps, the organizations offer different methods and programs around the world, and Melia suggests pluralism in this field is helpful.

However, the majority of these institutes receive funding from the U.S. government, and Justin Logan, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, is skeptical of their role. Logan does not subscribe to democracy-promotion as a foreign policy goal, arguing it is essentially regime change. Private institutes like financier George Soros’ Open Society Institute may be able to make progress toward opening some societies, but Logan says the government—even if it’s achieving its aims by supporting NGOs—should not be involved. Some argue NGOs can hinder and even work against U.S. interests. Recently, the New York Times accused the International Republican Institute (IRI) of undermining U.S. government policy in Haiti by siding with the opposition to ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The organization quickly refuted these claims, but the episode illustrates how independent organizations can sometimes find themselves at cross purposes with U.S. policy.

Do these organizations have political leanings?

Most of the organizations are very sensitive about being associated with any political party, and all claim to be neutral. "It’s a misreading of these groups to think of them in a partisan way, for most intents and purposes," says Melia. He notes, however, "We can’t be value-neutral in promoting democracy."

NED, the biggest American NGO focused on democracy-promotion, distributes equal amounts of funds to four affiliated institutes: the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Center for Independent Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the American Center for International Labor Solidarity ("Solidarity Center"). CIPE and the Solidarity Center are meant to balance the interests of business with those of labor.

Despite their names, NDI and IRI are not technically affiliated with either political party for legal and financial reasons. Originally, the chairs of the Democratic and Republican National Committees also chaired the institutes, but this practice ended due to concern public funds would be misused. The organizations’ neutrality is a necessary condition for funding from Washington. However, the board of directors of each group is stacked with prominent members of their respective parties. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) chairs IRI, while former Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright leads NDI.

What does NED and its affiliates do?

  • National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Established in 1983 under the Reagan administration and funded by Congress, NED is governed by an independent, bipartisan board of directors. Its core budget in FY 2005 was $74.02 million. Fifty-five percent of these funds are distributed equally in the form of grants to its four core institutes, and the rest of the budget is distributed among several other democracy-promoting organizations, as well as smaller indigenous groups across the globe. Private contributions fund other NED projects, including the quarterly Journal of Democracy. "We’re not the U.S. government, really; we just have U.S. money," says NED Public Affairs Manager Jane Riley Jacobsen. Occasionally, government funds are earmarked for specific programs; $60 million was appropriated to NED in 2004 for democracy-building in Iraq.
  • National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chairs NDI, which is funded by the NED, USAID, the State Department, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), as well as foreign governments’ aid agencies and private sector contributions. NDI has partnered with several sister organizations over the years: Along with the Carter Center, NDI helped monitor the January 25, 2006, Palestinian elections. NDI’s activities take place before and after elections, and include education campaigns, debate organization, and encouragement of women’s participation in the political process.
  • International Republican Institute (IRI). IRI is the Republican counterpart to NDI; Senator John McCain is the chairman. Its $74 million budget is supported by the NED, USAID, the State Department, and private donations, though private contributions make up less than 1 percent of the organization’s resources. IRI is active in approximately sixty countries.
  • Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). Also funded by the NED, USAID, UNDP, and private donations, CIPE focuses on "market-oriented reform" as the path to democracy. CIPE, founded in 1983, is a nonprofit affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and both the president and vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce serve on CIPE’s board. CIPE provides grants and direct assistance to indigenous organizations—primarily business associations and chambers of commerce—to improve private and public sector governance. Activities include anticorruption schemes, funding university business courses, and financing media programs that focus on economic issues. CIPE has several field offices employing a mix of Americans and nationals. The organization helped create the Afghan International Chamber of Commerce and provided seed money for an Iraqi television show on economics, among other projects.
  • American Center for International Labor Solidarity ("Solidarity Center"). The Solidarity Center is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), whose president chairs the Center’s board. The Solidarity Center is primarily concerned with building and supporting democratic trade unions, educating workers about collective bargaining, accountability, and health safety. In addition to NED, the Center is funded by USAID, the U.S. State department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (for HIV/AIDS-related programs), the AFL-CIO, private foundations, and various other labor organizations.

What are some other major independent American organizations that promote democracy?

  • IFES. Founded in 1987, IFES stands for International Foundation for Election Systems, though the organization’s efforts since the 1980s have expanded beyond just ballots. IFES, which receives approximately 80 percent of its funding from USAID and the State department, is also financed by the United Nations, other bilateral and multilateral organizations, and private donors. IFES focuses on providing technical assistance in four main areas: elections; rule of law, often working with a country’s judiciary; civil society; and governance at the parliamentary—and more recently—local levels.
  • Freedom House. Operating under the principle that "freedom is possible only in democratic political systems," Freedom House is one of the oldest democracy-promoting organizations in the United States, founded in 1941. It is well known for its annual survey "Freedom in the World," which in its 2006 edition ranked only eighty-nine countries in the world as "free" electoral democracies. Funding comes from USAID, the State department, and, to a greater extent than many other organizations, private contributors. Freedom House has several field offices and also provides small grants in their efforts to promote human rights and advocate press freedom. In Kyrgyzstan, it supports the Voice of Freedom, a network of human rights defenders, and it ran a "Citizen Participation in Elections in Ukraine" program in 2004. Freedom House is currently active in Iraq but not in Afghanistan nor the Palestinian territories.
  • Eurasia Foundation (EF). Funded by a combination of private and public sources— primarily USAID—the foundation was started in 1992 to aid nations of the former Soviet Union. EF provides approximately 600 grants each year for programs throughout the region, including student loans in Russia and professional business programs in Belarus. The foundation does not monitor elections, with the exception of conducting exit polls, because it does not want to be seen as intervening in politics. While an estimated 80 percent of the funding currently comes from the U.S. government, over the last five years, EF has tried to reduce its dependency on the government and has incorporated more European contributors.
  • Carter Center. The mission of the Carter Center is broader than that of several other organizations. While democracy-promotion is one of its main goals, the organization also focuses on conflict resolution and human rights. Founded by former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter in 1982, the Carter Center created its official Democracy Program in 1997. Citing reasons of sovereignty, it will only enter a country if it is welcomed by the major political powers. Funding for the organization, which is in partnership with Emory University, comes from a combination of public and private sources, including USAID and European governments. Since the Carter Center’s activities in the recent Palestinian elections were in cooperation with the government-funded NDI, official contacts with Hamas, deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, were prohibited.
  • Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Soros foundations network. The Open Society Institute does not see itself as a democracy-promoting organization, but does pursue activities that contribute to this goal. The only completely privately funded institution on this list, OSI is financed by George Soros and by trusts established by the Soros family. The lack of government funds provides OSI with a degree of autonomy and the organization says George Soros’ personal politics are not a factor in OSI. The organization operates as a network of foundations in various countries, where the boards and employees are nationals, focusing on human rights and public health, as well as election-monitoring and advocating government accountability and transparency.

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