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Press Conference by United Nations Democracy Fund, 09 May 2011

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

Better integration between democracy assistance and diplomatic efforts was needed, correspondents were told today, at a Headquarters press conference on the issue of how the international democracy family can support activists in the field.

Many civic organizations have stated that what they would most value from the international community was not a little bit more money or slightly more flexible funding, but the feeling that the money granted by donors was backed up with diplomacy at a high level, said Richard Youngs, Director General of Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior, while outlining concerns of civil society members that his organization helped survey in 18 different countries around the world.

The press conference was held by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), and brought together Mr. Youngs; Roland Rich, Executive Head of UNDEF; Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University; and Joel Barken, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The participants were part of an initiative by UNDEF, a voluntary fund that makes grants to support democratization efforts around the world, to analyse and improve the work of democracy activists based on feedback from aid recipients, said Mr. Rich. The genesis of the initiative occurred at the 2008 meeting of the World Democracy Movement in Kyiv, Ukraine, where democracy assistance organizations met to discuss and conduct a peer review of their activities.

Mr. Youngs added that tighter linkages between project funding and diplomatic relations between donor governments and non-democratic regimes were needed, perhaps more than anything else in this area of activity today. “The argument was put to us that it makes no sense for donors to be offering a few million in project assistance for democracy-related issues if the concern with political reform doesn’t also permeate the full panoply of foreign policy instruments articulated by donor governments, as they cut across issues of trade, energy, and development.”

In response to a question about whether the approach from donors would move from being technical in nature towards more political work, Mr. Youngs said that it depended on the individual donor and its geographical area. Some donors, such as the United States Agency for International Development, Canadian International Development Agency and the United Kingdom Department for International Development, as well as Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, had begun to question the current bias towards a technical approach, while others were more hesitant and shied away from more innovative, political projects.

“Donors are really squeezed quite hard,” he said. “On the one hand, recipients are saying, ‘You must get more political. Technical governance is not a panacea.’ On the other hand, they’re then often saying to donors, ‘Stay out of the local politics. Don’t make things worse’.” He noted the thin line that donors needed to navigate between being perceived as too political and not political enough.

If democracy assistance was contradicted by international diplomacy, then that sent mixed messages and was disheartening for democracy activists, agreed Mr. Diamond, discussing recent research that evaluated democratic assistance and showed a decline in freedom and civil rights around the world.

However, he added, some aid recipients wanted the international community to lean hard on their countries, while some did not, and yet other individuals provided contradictory opinions when interviewed on the topic. He noted that the United Nations could enhance the legitimacy of democracy assistance globally and get involved in areas that bilateral donors often could not, including supporting civil societies, rendering electoral assistance in conflicted situations, conducting mediation during transitions at “great risk of going off the rails completely”, and codifying best practices for democracy assistance.

Mr. Barken argued, on the other hand, that inadequate political support from the international community did not stand out as an issue in his findings from online surveys of 1,473 aid recipients around the world. For example, only 9.7 per cent of respondents answered that the international community had not provided sufficient political support to the democratic movement in their country when asked about the principal obstacles to the realization of democratization, according to the results compiled in the World Movement for Democracy’s “Perceptions of Democracy Assistance” report.

“The multilateral donors are, generally speaking, far less eager to get into the political thicket,” added Mr. Barken, noting that some international organizations spent millions on governance, but that it was all “supply side”, focusing on areas, such as the public sector, management and civil service reform, rather than “demand side” political change.

During the question and answer period, the participants were asked whether they believed that recent world developments, such as the “Arab Spring”, which occurred after their surveys were conducted, had removed the “tarnish” from democracy assistance. Mr. Rich responded that the Arab Spring had energized the democratic community and provided renewed confidence, while Mr. Youngs stated that it had muted the feeling that democracy was “Western specific”.

“Events we have seen over the last two or three months make it clear there is a constituency, that there is a local demand for some type of assistance in what will be a very difficult transition process,” said Mr. Youngs, “And I think there I would argue it is more important than ever to listen to what these constituencies want on the ground.”

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