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Emerging Voices: Julie Fisher on NGOs and Democratization

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
August 8, 2013

NGO workers behind bars in Egypt, February 2012 (Courtesy Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany). NGO workers behind bars in Egypt, February 2012 (Courtesy Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany).


Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Julie Fisher, a current associate and retired program officer of the Kettering Foundation and author of Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina. Here she discusses how international aid organizations can help democracy take root abroad.

Although democracy brings no guarantees, there is growing global awareness that repressive systems of government are incapable of implementing the socioeconomic and environmental changes essential for the survival of humanity. Fortunately, frustrated citizens around the world are taking to the streets and demanding more honest, accountable, and democratic governance.

Still, Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, listed only ninety countries as “free” by the end of 2012–a decline since 2006 and only a slight improvement since the 1990s. And according to Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report, twenty-seven countries have declined in freedom over the past year. These findings support political scientist Larry Diamond’s claim that the world is experiencing a democratic recession. This is in part because, although they are an important ingredient, demonstrations alone do not build democracy. In order for change to stick, there must be a flourishing community of autonomous non-governmental institutions — in other words, civil society.

The good news is that leaders of the global associational revolution, which began forty years ago when nonprofits and NGOs began to address issues ignored by unaccountable governments, are beginning to turn their attention to democratization, as I discuss in my latest book Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina. In the 1970s, thousands of NGOs focused on sustainable development were founded. The 1980s saw the rise of human rights NGOs, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, as I chronicle in Importing Democracy, a new breed of NGOs began adopting democratic concepts and revitalizing local democratic traditions, such as village councils, in the 1990s. In Tajikistan, for example, an NGO called Jahan has been able to retrain local police in human rights law and humane treatment of suspects.

But, as Will Dobson argues in his book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve, authoritarian governments are now cracking down on NGOs. Ten years ago, most governments, particularly authoritarian ones, were either unaware of civil society or dismissed it as insignificant. Now, however, governments are fearful of political opposition and are systematically suppressing civil society and those who support it in places such as Russia and Egypt.

International actors need to think long and hard about how to protect pro-democracy individuals and organizations abroad. Foreign donors must also avoid the trap of assuming that they know what another country needs. A recent report on international support for NGOs in Cyprus, published by the Peace Research Institute Oslo, found that “International donors continue to underestimate the importance of peace-orientated civil society and instead attempt to institutionalize, co-opt or marginalize [NGOs].” The report went on to suggest that “donors would do well to see themselves as servants and guardians of [civil society] and its hidden agency and potential, rather than its managers.”

Wealthy donors and international NGOs should learn from and reach out to the thousands of indigenous democratization NGOs promoting change in their home countries. In The Dictator’s Learning Curve, Dobson offers examples of small innovative international NGOs that have successfully reached out to local activists. Otpor, for example, an organization led by the activists who helped overthrow Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, holds clandestine workshops for democracy activists around the world. Similarly, the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI) seeks to encourage nonviolent action and democratization abroad. AEI’s pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, a seventy-nine-page how-to guide, has been translated into twenty-five languages and has been downloaded from the Internet hundreds of thousands of times.

International and indigenous organizations should partner on various projects and exchanges, including facilitating internships and skills-transfers between different national and international NGOs; leading anti-corruption programs; coordinating reform of international and domestic law; and bringing together democratization, development, human rights, and grassroots leaders and organizations. In the end, repression must be replaced by robust citizenship in order for a prosperous, peaceful, and equal world to flourish. By building on what democratization NGOs are already doing and supporting their efforts to learn from each other, international actors can contribute to this better future.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Folorunsho Moshood

    Yes, “By building on what democratization NGOs are already doing and supporting their efforts to learn from each other, international actors can contribute to this better future”, and not trying to force their democratization programmes on local NGOs. They should always look outwards to the NGOs they are planning to support and should not always look inwards to themselves. I love the word ‘building’ here. A lot of practitioners don’t understand the difference between DEVELOPMENT and BUILDING. So, you find yourself in a capacity building workshop, but what they are doing is capacity development. NGOs that are just coming up or new would need capacity development because they have no capacity… one cannot build on zero. NGOs that have been in the business for considerable amount of time wouldn’t need capacity development, but capacity building… meaning ‘building on the existing capacity’.

  • Posted by James Strait

    Installing democracy in civilizations where the populations are birthed into a misogynistic form of religious dogma, is akin to making a square peg fit a round hole.

    Also, populations that have been conditioned to worship an exalted enduring leader from their birth will resist a system that promotes the polar opposite.

    Converting despotic civilizations is not a one generation process. To expect a culture to turn on dime is unrealistic and will produce disappointment and failure on both sides of the equation.

    Because of democracies inherent advantages over anything different, present non-democratic countries will eventually convert to a democratic model. But eventually is the operative word.

  • Posted by Eric Smiley

    In many areas in which freedom has been declined it is hard to overcome the Catch-22 of tribal leadership. As with most violent behavior within nations, the men aged 20 to 40 lead the way. Nations with leadership drawn from those demographics also are leading the way in violent behavior. Retaining the community freedoms, when established, requires that the population of the area evolve into a community where women and children (or the meek as I like to call them) are welcome to participate, if not explicitly, at least expressively.

    The world has been progressing in the development of communities where all voices are heard. Violent crime has been on the decline, with some spiking, for centuries. The challenge/opportunity now is to use our evolving technology to allow a broader base of the tribal population to speak even if they are not yet listened to.

    When NGOs support an appropriate structure without the appropriate cultural evolution there is a greater chance of regression to the previous tribal structure. The biggest force in cultural evolution is communication.

    Best wishes

  • Posted by Manuel Castrillo

    La nueva era está impregnada de revolución de las minorías. Aún ante esfuerzos de la sociedad civil, los grupos de poder de las ” democracias “, no están dispuestos a ceder el control del sistema imperante, más aún, en regímenes totalitarios o nuevas bloques, como el ALBA. que sustituyen al liberalismo económico. La identidad de cada pueblo, nos plantea soluciones diferentes, a pesar de la globalización, y las voces emergentes, carecen de experiencia en el manejo y gobernaza del paradigma actual. Aún así, son estos nuevos actores, los llamados a generar un cambio y quebrantar las barreras para crear democracias más participativas e inclusivas, que permitan una convivencia más armónica y justa.

  • Posted by Julia Roig

    Thank you for this excellent discussion. Partners for Democratic Change ( has been supporting local organizations to contribute to democracy for over 25 years and we have seen the importance of uniting global and local efforts to further democratic transitions. We believe in building local leadership and platforms for bridge-building between sectors to collaboratively address policy reforms and facilitate the transformation of conflict in transitioning democracies. The ability to peacefully negotiate interests with those who disagree with you, or who you have historically seen as an “enemy” is fundamental to a stable and democratic state. Local democracy NGOs need to move beyond traditional combative advocacy and watchdog functions to also promote coalitions and a participatory approach to governance in their own countries.

  • Posted by Julie Fisher

    As the author of this blog, I was delighted that Foreign Policy re-posted it, several months after it was written. Partners for Democratic Change is, indeed, a pioneer in smart, non intrusive support for local democratization NGOs. For more on international actors, see Chapter 12 of my book, Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina. Order on amazon, or http://www.importingdemocracy. org

  • Posted by Faidrex ZAHITI

    I appreciate phrases like ‘bridge-building” ”learning from each other”. Democracy can’t be installed, let alone imposed. I don’t see how some commentors can still talk about installing democracy. Democracy is the harmonious blend of the cultural history/heritage of the nation and the global perspective of the world we’re living in today. World powers rejoiced at the Arab Spring? What did it bring in those nations? Just chaos. International NGOs where actively involved in this big mistake and mess. Iam a permernent resident in Canada from Ivory Coast. Most of those countries where better off without ”Western style democracy”. Egpyt was better off with military rulers. Libya was better off with Gaddafi. The problem with international NGOs is that most of the time, they are just the mouthpiece of Western foreign offices, and in so doing they become ineffective, intrusive.

    Now in terms of what activities and programs, I think it should be a mixture and not a reflexion of the country that is funding us or has colonised us. When my country wanted to put in place a national volunteering program, I feared they would just copy from France because France supports the incumbent president. I made proposals to the National Civic Service authorities in my country about volunteerism taking from 2 schools of volunteerism (US and France) to create a model adptated to my country’s realities. Our volunteering program just isn’t working.

  • Posted by Fabrice Adelphe BALOU

    Thank you very much for your analysis “indigenous and international organizations should partner on various projects and exchanges, including facilitating internships and skills-transfer between national and international NGOs, major programs against corruption; coordinate reform of the international and national law; and bringing democracy, development, human rights, and the leaders and grassroots organizations. ”
    This is the Dynamics in which we are presently registered as an organization like Community Cantonal called: Platform Toulépleu of Youth Organisations (POJeT) based in the Republic of the Ivory Coast.

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