U.S. Aid Buys Fragile Democracies Time to Grow


Agnes Ngo lost her home after her husband abandoned her in 1990. She and her two daughters moved to the infamous Crossroads squatter camp near Cape Town until fighting and crime forced them to flee to a shack with a 5-foot-high ceiling and walls of cardboard crating that shook when Cape winds blew across Africa’s southern tip.

But by the end of last year, the energetic Xhosa maid had moved into a new 200-square-foot home of raw gray cinder block with electricity and a roof that does not depend on heavy stones to hold it in place. With U.S. funds paying for management assistance, church-donated land and help from a dozen middle-aged women who have learned to make bricks and use trowels, she built it herself.

“The American people are proud to stand with the people of South Africa as you take your own destiny in your hands, brick by brick,” then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher told Ngo and her neighbors during a tour of the housing project in October. “Democracy begins in communities like this, and so here I feel like I am really visiting the new South Africa.”

Supporting housing programs for homeless women is one of dozens of creative new U.S. approaches to foreign aid in the mid-1990s. By tackling explosive economic and social issues, Washington hopes to buy fragile new democracies more time.


To enlighten Bosnia-Herzegovina’s next generation, U.S. funds are helping retrain teachers to shift from authoritarian and rote learning techniques to civic education and participatory learning. American support has empowered grass-roots organizations in Cambodia to help create a postwar civil society.

To defuse internal threats to Russia’s young democracy, U.S. aid is building almost 5,000 housing units for Russian soldiers returning from former Soviet republics and retraining them in civilian trades. American funds for forest and resource management in Sri Lanka have helped devolve power to rural areas.

Yet just as the U.S. has developed a post-Cold War aid strategy to encourage democratic growth, Congress is cutting foreign aid funds. The appropriation this year is $6.7 billion, down 16% from the $8 billion that Congress provided for 1993. U.S. help is now often confined to token programs.

The impact is evident at Ngo’s housing project. So far, about 20 of 150 planned houses have been built by the Homeless People’s Federation in Western Cape Province. “It’s a beginning,” said Patricia Matolengwe, a former domestic worker who is now the federation’s national chairwoman. “But we need so much more.”


The Western Cape alone needs 200,000 new units, while South Africa needs at least 1 million by 1999 for burgeoning numbers of homeless who have created hundreds of squatter camps since apartheid’s end. The new government has put up fewer than the white government built annually.

“The United States has now learned that it’s better to base programs on local participation and to build bottom up rather than top down,” said Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. “Promoting democracy involves socioeconomic aid for women’s empowerment and rural cooperatives and marginalized people, not just helping parliaments.

“But we now have tiny little programs that are demonstration projects rather than full-scale efforts because Congress has limited aid funding.”

The congressional premise is that the democratic surge of the 1980s allowed a shift from foreign aid to domestic problems. The Russian housing project, for example, was cut back in part because Congress was concerned that U.S. funds were helping Russian troops while American veterans were homeless.

But some analysts are concerned about unintended consequences. “We can’t assume democracy will stumble on indefinitely for want of any alternative,” said Larry Diamond, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.

A CIA study of unsuccessful democracies found foreign aid to be most critical at the beginning. “If we’re not able to move in to help with the nuts and bolts of democracy and help strengthen civil society, then new democracies are more likely to fail in the early days,” said Brian Atwood, administrator of the Agency for International Development.

Responding to Congress, the Clinton administration last year announced it would cut the number of countries receiving aid from 120 in 1993 to 75 in 2000.

On a per capita basis, the United States ranks last among rich industrialized nations in foreign aid given. Even in absolute terms, U.S. aid trails that of Japan, Germany and France, even though their economies are much smaller.


“The budget cuts put us in the ironic position of having encouraged democratic change but not having the resources to help effectuate change,” Atwood said.

Also, inconsistent U.S. policies often frustrate democracy’s growth in places such as Saudi Arabia, China, Indonesia and Nigeria. The United States has blasted Saudi Arabia for restricting freedom of speech, press and assembly, torturing detainees and repressing minorities. Yet thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed to protect Saudi Arabia, source of 12% of America’s imported oil.

“I am skeptical about U.S. good intentions or professed ideals about promoting democracy because U.S. policy is full of complex contradictions,” said Jose Ramos-Horta, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for trying to end Indonesian repression in East Timor.

Democratic ideals often collide overseas with other U.S. interests, most frequently economic concerns. As a consequence, the United States maintains close economic or security ties with several particularly undemocratic countries, including Saudi Arabia, China, Indonesia and Nigeria.

“It voted for a U.N. resolution critical of Indonesia’s record in East Timor but then . . . announced plans to sell F-16 warplanes and restore military training to Indonesia,” said Ramos-Horta. “Both may be used to enhance Indonesia’s hold on East Timor.”

Political expediency is also often a factor. U.S. aid to Armenia in 1996 was $95 million, roughly $25 per Armenian--versus 64 cents per Russian--despite allegations of serious fraud during Armenia’s fall presidential elections. Armenian Americans are well-connected to both U.S. political parties, notably in California and New York, which deliver large blocs of electoral votes in presidential elections.

The United States has also embraced Albanian President Sali Berisha, who has been a useful ally during the crisis in Bosnia, despite his record of ballot-box fraud and autocratic rule.

“These are the kinds of examples that question our consistency,” said Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment.


The result may be missed opportunities in countries such as Nigeria, where the United States buys 7% of its imported oil. After the military voided 1993 democratic election results, arrested the winner and engaged in increasingly ruthless tactics to remain in power, the United States did little to squeeze the regime or exploit others’ initiatives, including one by South Africa.

“The recurrent weakness in U.S. foreign policy is a reluctance to exercise forceful leadership in rallying international coalitions to use diplomatic and economic instruments to promote democracy,” Diamond said. “Nigeria is a country that could have been compelled through international pressure falling well short of the oil weapon to conform. On paper we may have the right policy, but then we did not invest a lot in making it happen.”

As in earlier administrations, the Clinton White House argues that U.S. interests vary from country to country--and therefore so should policy.

“In no case is democracy a stand-alone absolute. Support for democracy is a very strong thread that we have to weave into the overall fabric of foreign policy,” said Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. “If you take that thread out, the fabric cannot hold together.”

The buzzword of the day is democratic “enlargement"--expanding the core of democratic nations. But the quality of freedom has flagged over the past four years. Among today’s democracies, the number of liberal democracies dropped from 85% in 1990 to 65% in 1996, Diamond said.

America’s power to achieve results overseas may be limited, said Brent Scowcroft, who was national security advisor to President George Bush.

“We can’t install democracy. We can only encourage it,” Scowcroft said. “Being a beacon of quiet encouragement and constructive engagement is more effective than holding up scorecards every year and holding countries up to censure or ridicule when they don’t measure up.”

China embodies the challenge to the integrity of a U.S. policy based on economic reforms encouraging political freedom.

“If China continues to decentralize its economy, integrate into the global economy and encourage infrastructure and commercial habits of the marketplace, then over time it will be harder to sustain a repressive political system or a system hostile to the principles of human rights and civil society,” Talbott said.

But U.S. policy on China is hypocritical, critics contend. “There’s not a uniform commitment to the democratic agenda,” said Adrian Karatnycky, president of Freedom House, a New York-based group that monitors political liberties worldwide. “The administration is overly cautious about upsetting China . . . It’s fallen for the myth that trade will inevitably lead to democratization.”

For the waning years of the 20th century, U.S. policy is almost certain to remain a mix of token aid and selective pragmatism--a combination already eliciting warnings from key allies. Nowhere is the call louder than from South Africa, which Washington holds up as a model of how to encourage democratic practices worldwide.

“If the United States does not do more, there is a real risk of instability that would affect far more than South Africa,” warned Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid activism.

“Because our resources and development give us advantages,” Tutu said, “we will be either the spectacular success or the spectacular failure that will set the precedent for the future of Africa and many others who are struggling to become good democracies.”


About This Series

After spreading to many new countries in the past decade, democracy is in trouble in many corners of the globe.

Sunday: The paramount reason for the imperilment of democracy is its failure to meet the economic aspirations that motivated democracy’s boom in the first place.

Monday: New freedoms have unleashed a host of old evils. Two in particular--ethnic violence and political corruption--are corroding democracy from within.

Tuesday: As democracy spreads, it faces its most profound challenges from two of the world’s oldest cultures: Islam and Confucianism.

Today: Devolution--the transfer of power from the national government to the regional and even the municipal levels--is the most dynamic trend in today’s new democracies.


The Drop in U.S. Foreign Aid

The United States has long used foreign aid, both economic and military, to encourage democracy abroad. That aid has mostly dropped, since spiking soon after World War II.

1949: $55.7 billion

1995: $15.5 billion

Source: U.S. Agency for Economic Development

Note: All figures adjusted to 1996 dollars. Figures include economic and military aid.