30. October 2016 | EDP Wire | Julia Leininger

Contextualizing democracy promotion

The author identifies five sets of individual, societal, cultural, political and spatial factors that help to identify patterns of democracy promotion’s context. Such patterns serve to better understand and explain democracy promotion in the future. They inform both, research and policy-making. This post was originally published  on Comparative Democratisation 14 (3), October 2016.

It is uncontested that democracy promotion’s prospects for success depend on its political context. Most studies agree that domestic factors are the main drivers of democratization despite of international actors’ relevant influence on these processes. However, two major flaws remain, which make it difficult to generalize the influence of contextual factors on the process and effectiveness of democracy promotion. First, generalizable patterns of context conditions are not yet identified in quantitative and qualitative research. Second, most researchers focus on genuinely political factors such as type of regime, state fragility or political event, but turn a blind eye on social, cultural and global factors. In the following, I argue that democracy promotion can better be understood and explained if research sheds light on blind spots ranging from societal individual (micro) to cultural, political and spatial (macro) contexts of democracy promotion. An additional “blind spot” concerns the ethical responsibilities of research on democracy promotion. I conclude with implications for conceptualizing context factors in the study of democracy promotion.

The programmatic approach proposed in this essay can help to better explain democracy promotion as well as to guide practitioners. Some of these suggestions are already part of our recent research on democracy promotion at the German Development Institute/Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) and the German Research Network “External Democratization” while others emerge from this research.[1]

The Micro-Context: Pay More Attention to Individuals at Large

Contesting democratic values and norms has become the “new normal”. Democracy is under threat from within and from the outside. Autocrats challenge democratic norms openly in international fora. They pro-actively promote repressive structures in other countries while Western democracies’ international reputation and the global level of democracy decreased after 2014 to its lowest point since the end of the Cold War.[2] Also within western societies, populist and nationalist leaders as Donald Trump in the USA or Viktor Órban in Hungary attack core democratic values such as political equality of all citizens.

An analytical focus on political elites has become the common denominator of these studies. Authors argue that democratization and effective democracy promotion became more difficult because these political elites contest and refuse democratic values. Although comparativists started to study the relevance of social movements for the opening of authoritarian regimes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, elite-centered approaches are still the dominant analytical lens in the study of democratization and its promotion. But such a focus on elites’ contestation of democratic values is likely to mislead analysts of democracy promotion. We should not assume that democratic values per se are contested. To the contrary, according to various sources as the World Value Survey or the Afrobarometer popular support of democracy has never been as high in history as nowadays. Four fifth of the respondents in all world regions indicate that democracy is important for them or that they prefer democracy over alternative types of a political regime, independent of the level of freedom in the respective country.

Responses from authoritarian contexts might be biased because people might not feel able to respond openly and according to their political convictions. However, a cross-check of the respondents’ assessment of the de facto political situation in their respective country suggests that they are likely to feel free enough to take a critical standpoint in the survey. There is a high correlation between regime type and the perceived level of freedom of speech according to the Afrobarometer (e.g. more than 50 per cent feel completely free to speak up in more democratic countries; around 15 per cent say the same in less democratic contexts). Democracy is conceived to be the best alternative and very relevant by 78 to 83 per cent of the respondents amongst all religions and those who are non-religious. Only Hinduism builds an exception with less than 70% favoring democracy and 16% indicating that democracy has a very low relevance for them. Recent empirical research on the role of religious actors for democratization in countries with different religious-majoritarian backgrounds backs the argument that individuals support democracy independent of their religious denomination.[3] Democracy promotion’s success depends on such general popular support for democracy. Democracy promotion only has a chance to yield fruits if the people in a recipient country are in accordance with the idea of democracy. Neither scholars nor democracy promoters themselves should fall into the “cultural trap” and assume that specific cultural contexts are per se pro- or anti-democratic as suggested in the debate about the “clash of civilizations”.

Finally, there is an additional empirical argument that makes the inclusion of individual perspectives in the study of democracy promotion necessary in the future. Demographic change will double the world population until 2050 in the poorest – and often least democratic – societies of the world. The political socialization of these approximately 900,000 young “new arrivals” will be decisive for the future of democracy. It will therefore make a crucial difference for the future of open societies to understand better how democracy promoters can shape the formation of individuals’ political attitudes.

The Cultural Context: Be Open for a Re-Conceptualization of ‘Democracy Promotion’

If there is a general support for democracy, another immediate question emerges: what kind of democracy? Liberal notions of democracy embrace individual freedom and are often linked to the idea of a market economy. Some political elites and protesters in the Global South contest notions of liberal values associated with “western” culture, in particular individualism. Such challenges go hand in hand with ideas about non-western, locally genuine concepts of democracy.[4] Such ideas revolve around modes of decision-making (consensus versus elections) or take the community and not the individual as the basic entity of society (community versus individual). Some autocrats use this anti-western discourse to call for more authentic political institutions, often serving as democratic façades for autocratic practices. But these claims are not limited to the Global South. Calls for more participative and accountable democratic regimes are also growing in Western societies.

Promoting the “wrong” model of democracy has been frequently identified as one of the major obstacles for effective democracy promotion. Some scholars argue that the “Western model” cannot be exported elsewhere. However, this finding lacks a solid empirical basis. The process of democracy promotion implies a constant contestation and (re-)negotiation of democratic models between those who are involved in that process. Except for the literature on liberal peacebuilding and international socialization (“localizing norms”) almost no research has focused on these local interactions between democracy promoters and local elites.[5] We therefore know little about what kind of model or aspects of democracy Western donors promote in practice.

If we do not want to fall into the trap of using stereotypes, we must engage in a more profound empirical analysis of the cultural particularities of democracy in non-western countries. This also implies a conceptual revision of ‘democracy promotion’. The concept of democracy promotion typically refers to an ‘external’ actor who aims at influencing political processes inside a country from outside. However, I argue that democracy promoters influence a political regime from “within” and not from “without”. Democracy promotion does not start from scratch in a country. It is embedded in diplomatic relations with local presence and makes part of a larger and mostly longstanding cooperation portfolio. In short, international actors are in most cases interwoven with the recipient regime and co-constitute its political culture. Only an “inside-out perspective” opens the black box of interactive conceptual politics in democracy promotion and allows for integrating cultural factors more systematically.[6]

The Political Context: Identify Patterns of (Fragile) Statehood

More scholarly attention than to individual and cultural factors has been paid to state fragility and political conflict in the context of democracy promotion. Most of these studies assume that democratization fosters conflict and that successful democracy promotion in contexts of fragile statehood is unlikely. However, efforts to systematically study fragile contexts were very limited in the past. Identifying patterns and different intensities of fragility would be an important factor to better judge the effects of democracy promotion. A research team at the German Development Institute/Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) found that the effects of international support to democracy are likely to vary according to the pattern of state fragility in which international interventions take place. Based on a typology of fragile statehood developed at DIE we clustered countries according to three dimensions of statehood: capacity (provision of basic life chances), authority (control of violence) and legitimacy (citizens’ trust in the state). It finds that four groups of fragile states can be empirically distinguished: three groups each with serious deficiencies in mainly one out of the three dimensions of statehood, and one group with deficiencies in all three dimensions.[7] For instance, where the legitimacy of the state decreases drastically – as in the dawn of the Arab spring of 2011 – a destabilization of the political regime is likely. Comparative case studies showed evidence that democracy promotion in states with limited state capacity and decreasing state legitimacy is likely to be effective – at least if international donors impose coordinated political conditionality. As a consequence for the study of democracy promotion, we need more efforts to systematize the relationship between (fragile) statehood and democratization in comparative empirical analyses.

The Spatial Context: Change Your Focus of Interest to Urban Spaces

As seen above, when studying democracy promotion, most scholars refer to political context as macro-structures such as political regimes, the state and geographical regions. These units of analysis shape data-collection and analysis. However, such units are likely to become less important in the shadow of structural, global changes. According to the United Nations the global urban population is likely to increase from almost 4 billion in 2014 to 6.5 billion in 2050 due to internal migration from rural to urban areas and by demographic change. Such demographic and migration dynamics will change urban infrastructure and alter the dynamics of political rule and regime change. Mass-based collective actions in cities might facilitate political mobilization and boost modernization but could also foster political instability and lead to an increase of violence in urban areas. These trends will be most prominent in Africa and Asia, where by 2050 almost three quarters of the global urban population is likely to live. If we want to catch up with these empirical trends in the study of democracy promotion, we must shift our attention to other units of analysis.

Research can help to build scenarios to identify opportunities and challenges of urbanization for successful democracy promotion such as the potential for political mobilization and new social media in urban areas. Furthermore, urbanization is likely to cause problems such as increasing social inequality between the urban and rural areas or by creating new cleavages within huge cities. Such social inequalities will shape future opportunities for democracy promotion.

Ethical Perspective: Be Aware of the Shrinking Space of (Academic) Civil Society

We have been observing a “shrinking space” for free action and assembly of civil society at a global scale in recent years. Legal regulation of non-state actors such as NGOs or civic associations has become one of the standard toolkits of autocrats and to-be-autocrats. They use legal regulations to punish, demobilize and repress those who are perceived as threats to the survival or stability of a political regime. This trend has severe implications for the planning and implementation of research but also for research partners in non-democratic contexts.

Empirical research on democracy promotion is data-driven. Access to primary sources depends on cooperation with local research partners, open-access state institutions and good relations with local authorities and associations. Cooperation with local research partners and authorities in a context of shrinking space for civil society implies more responsibility of international researchers and of their funding organizations. While international researchers can choose to leave a country when civil space is shrinking, local research partners have no choice in most of the cases. State authorities are likely to hold them responsible for controversial research results. Hence, researchers studying democracy promotion should be aware of the consequences of their research and take responsibility for their actions.

Conclusion: Implications for the Future Study of Democracy Promotion

I have identified five sets of individual, societal, cultural, political and spatial factors that will help to identify patterns of democracy promotion’s context. Such patterns serve to better understand and explain democracy promotion in the future. Four implications for a future research program emerge from these observations on contextual factors.

First, through studying the influence of societal and cultural factors on political attitudes and, in turn, of political attitudes on institution-building and on the behavior of political elites in (de-)democratization, we can learn more about regime change in general and how democracy promotion could challenge autocrats. Such actors-centered approaches can help to shed light on the effects of democracy promotion, but does not substitute for an analysis of democratic institutions and collective behavior. Although we know that attitudinal change is a precondition of democratic consolidation we do not know how democracy promotion influences the formation of political attitudes.[8] Given massive demographic change and at least 900,000 additional young people on earth until 2050 more knowledge is needed on how democratic attitudes can be pro-actively shaped.

Second, the study of democracy promotion can contribute to identify different models and concepts of non-western democracy. This is of particular importance because the model of liberal democracy has been contested in the Global South. Analyzing the interaction between local and internationally promoted concepts of democracy can further inform the conceptualization of varying types of democracy. At the same time, a conceptual distinction of political regimes and the state can help to identify if and how different patterns of state fragility

Third, spatial transformation requires a re-focus of the unit of analysis from purely state centered foci to urban spaces. Analytical approaches of multi-level governance and social network analysis will help to capture such spatial and migratory dynamics.

Fourth, awareness for the political nature of the empirical study of democracy promotion is important – and potentially even life-saving – for researchers in repressive regimes. Research results feed into strategies of democracy promoters. Hence, the research process indirectly influences the space of civil society in countries of the Global South. Scholars of democracy promotion are therefore “part of the political game” and have to take responsibility for their actions that goes beyond the publication of research results.


[1] The German Development Institute/Deutsches Institut fuer Entwicklungspolitik (www.die-gdi.de) is member of the “Research Network External Democracy Promotion” (https://www.external-democracy-promotion.eu/).

[2] Christine Hackenesch, “Not as Bad as it Seems? EU and US Democracy Promotion Strategies Faces China in Africa,” Democratization 22 (Summer 2015): 419-437.

[3] Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah, God ’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011); Mirjam Künkler and Julia Leininger, “Religious Actors in Democratization. Evidence from Five Young Democracies”, Democratization 16 (December 2009): 1058-1092. Preliminary results of an ongoing project of the latter authors on “Religion in the Fourth Wave of Democratization” also indicate that (pro- and anti-democratic) political theologies only matter if political institutions mediate these theologies.

[4] Richard Youngs, The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2015).

[5] For more research on the interaction in democracy promotion see https://www.external-democracy-promotion.eu/.

[6] Julia Leininger, “‘Bringing the outside in’: illustrations from Haiti and Mali for the re-conceptualization of democracy promotion” Contemporary Politics 16 ( January 2010): 63 – 80

[7] Jörn Grävingholt, Sebastian Ziaja, and Merle Kreibaum, “Disaggregating State Fragility: A Method to Establish Multidimensional Empirical Typology,” Third World Quarterly 36 (December 2015): 1281-1298

[8] For more information see the webpage of DIE’s project “What is democracy’s value? The Influence of Values on the Effectiveness of Democracy Promotion” (https://www.die-gdi.de/en/research/projects/details/what-is-democracys-value-the-influence-of-values-on-the-effectiveness-of-democracy-promotion/)

« back