8. Januar 2019 | EDP Wire | Tina Freyburg

Democracy Promotion by Indirect Means

Dieser Wire-Beitrag ist Teil unserer EDP Wire Series für die wir wöchentlich Beiträge aus unserem gemeinsamen EDP Policy Paper veröffentlichen. In ihrem Beitrag zum EDP Policy Paper, schaut sich Tina eine spezifische Strategie internationaler Governance an, die manche als vielversprechende Alternative zur direkten und expliziten Demokratieförderung betrachten. Darauf ausbauend diskutiert sie ob Demokratieförderung durch sogenannte „functional cooperation“ eine Lösung für die momenant schwierige Lage sein kann. In den nächsten Wochen werden wir zudem weitere Fragen beantworten, zum Beispiel ob Demokratie als Regierungssystem global im Niedergang begriffen ist, wie man mit Shrinking Spaces weltweit umgehen sollte, und wie Demokratieförderer und Akteure in verschiedenen Weltregionen mit Erfolgen und Scheitern von Demokratieförderungsaktivitäten umgehen.

Widespread consensus has it that democracy promotion through military coercion is not a particularly promising strategy. Yet, the notion of promoting democracy in stable authoritarian regimes by cooperative means raises a seemingly intractable problem: why should the incumbent ruler be willing to commit what amounts to political suicide by enacting genuine democratic change? Non-coercive instruments of democracy promotion, such as political conditionality and assistance to democratic activists, require at least tacit consent on the part of the targeted regime. As outlined in previous chapters, recent years have seen a significant decrease in the number of countries in which democracy promoters can count on such (tacit) consent. In the current context, therefore, the search for alternatives to direct democracy promotion has become more important than ever. In this chapter, I argue that functional cooperation with authoritarian regimes offers such an alternative. As I show, research suggests that, by supporting the implementation of legal and administrative governance standards in policy sectors outside the key areas of democracy promotion, donors can de facto contribute to a gradual transfer of democratic norms. Yet, as will be seen, the success of such an indirect approach to promoting democratic change depends on preconditions that are being similarly undermined in the current global context.

Functional cooperation, in this context, refers to foreign aid programs and activities that focus on specific policy sectors (e.g., water, health, education, energy) with the aim of improving the operation and performance of the public administration in the given sector by promoting legal and administrative governance standards. The apparently non-political nature of such sector-specific governance programs and their promise to promote the provision of public goods as well as services, thereby addressing sources of potential domestic discontent, makes functional cooperation attractive to authoritarian regimes. This calculation on the part of recipient governments notwithstanding, sector-specific governance programs can actually serve to gradually promote democratic standards from within the public sector. Functional cooperation brings together government regulators to exchange information, develop common regulatory standards, and assist one another in enforcing these standards. Having been designed by and for advanced democracies, the template regulations embody governance provisions that reflect key democratic principles, notably participatory, transparent, and accountable modes of administrative decision-making.[1] By participating in externally supported policy reform programs, state officials from non-democracies can become acquainted with democratic governance.[2] Insofar as partner countries approximate their domestic legislation to the template regulation provided, democratic provisions can also enter domestic legislation if not shape administrative practices in non-democracies. Evidence in support of such a democratizing potential of functional cooperation has been found in studies of various EU Neighbourhood policy initiatives.[3] Similar programs of sectoral reform are, however, also applied by external actors other than the EU, including the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and the UN Development Programme, and can also happen within transgovernmental networks such as the International Competition Network.

By itself, functional cooperation is certainly unlikely to engender more profound democratic change, and it can even have the opposite effect when the stabilization of a given authoritarian regime through improved public sector performance outweighs the above-mentioned pro-democratic effects (see van Hüllen in this report). Yet, at least potentially, this low-key, depoliticized, and technocratic way of transferring democratic principles and practices can play an important role in preparing the (legal) administrative ground upon which eventual political transitions can rest.[4] Functional cooperation might thus contribute – albeit indirectly, and only partially – to the goal of democratization.


Sector-specific governance programs generally operate without much publicity and are relatively unaffected by the turbulences of political dispute. In most cases, they are actively sought by regimes that see them as unthreatening and offering additional resources to boost their capacity to implement public policies. The cooperative character of such indirect democracy promotion activities makes them a promising venue even in (semi-)authoritarian contexts. At the same time, because they depend on being perceived as non-political, these sector governance programs can realize their democratizing potential only in relatively non-politicized settings. While generally better suited for supporting democracy in unfavorable contexts, in light of amplified politicization and geopolitical hardening of relations, this indirect strategy of democracy promotion is increasingly being confronted with the same challenges straightforward policies of democracy promotion are facing.[5]

First, a (semi-)authoritarian regime needs to perceive participation in sector-specific reform programs to be beneficial. It needs to be convinced that it can find better solutions to its specific policy problems by cooperating with established democracies than by developing independent solutions or by looking for assistance elsewhere. The larger its own resources and the wider the spectrum of alternative solutions and partners, the smaller the chance that it will adopt rules and standards originating in developed democracies given their potentially costly political implications (i.e., precisely the provisions of democratic governance incorporated in them). While liberal democracies still have the greatest technological and economic resources to invest in development elsewhere, regional authoritarian powers such as Saudi Arabia and China have started to conceive their foreign relations in broader terms. Part of their strategy consists in participating more substantially in development aid. What distinguishes their approach from “traditional” development cooperation as practiced by liberal democracies is that the latter tend to make assistance conditional on politico-economic criteria, while the former set no conditions of this kind, which makes them interesting partners for authoritarian regimes.[6]

Second, targeted countries may feel more pressure to harmonize their rules and practices with an externally-supported standard if this standard enjoys broad international legitimacy, i.e. if it is recognized and applied by the international community. There are trends that make the stability of international norms in the near future less certain. Our rules-based world is crumbling under pressures of globalization that seem to be giving birth to a return of geopolitics. This, in turn, may hamper longer-term relationships between democracies and non-democracies; practices of cross-national sectoral cooperation may suffer a setback. The loss in credibility, leverage and political will on the part of established democracies outlined in the introduction to this report adds to this.

Third, whether or not a regime is willing to adopt and apply rules originating in liberal democracies depends on its own degree of liberalization. Regimes that risk excessively high political costs related to the adoption of rules fostering issue-specific transparency, accountability, and participation are likely to engage only hesitantly in functional cooperation with democracies. For instance, governments that have difficulty in maintaining control over their country and/or that struggle with (perceived) terrorist threats will probably remove the democratic components of a governance reform or renounce the reform program altogether. This scenario has become more common, for instance, in the countries surrounding the EU, such as Egypt.

Finally, even when functional cooperation is successful in transferring certain norms, there is no automatic spill-over from rule adoption to rule application. Provisions of democratic governance incorporated in sectoral rules may be adopted by a recipient country as part of its strategy for addressing a specific policy challenge, but not implemented – due to the anticipated high political costs of application or because of the instability (or lack) of effective government. To be sure, an increase in democratic governance is no real substitute for democratic transformation proper. Rules pertaining to transparency provisions in environmental legislation or to independent judicial review in asylum policy, for instance, are only small drops in the ocean of institutional provisions constituting a democratic order. Still, if included in domestic legislation, provisions of democratic governance can constitute a domestically legitimized point of reference for reform-minded agents that may demand their realization in practice.


Indirect democracy promotion by means of functional cooperation with (semi-)authoritarian regimes can be effective, but only in a context of cooperative relations between the actors involved. Even then, it can only promote acquaintance with democratic attitudes and practices through long-term relationships marked by sufficient trust to allow the necessary leeway and openness. This requires a mutual commitment to rule-based bilateral relations and the renunciation on the part of the would-be democracy promoter of ad-hoc, arbitrary actions that undermine the very principles on which functional cooperation is based. Confrontation and “hard” policies that aim at coercing (semi-) authoritarian regimes are, thus, incompatible with indirect democracy promotion through functional cooperation; policy-specific reform programs bringing together state administrations from democracies and non-democracies in order to work on common policy challenges are to be protected and extended. Finally, to ensure that autocratic states continue to associate benefits with cooperation with more developed democracies, liberal democracies need to refrain from protectionist policies and reduced international commitments. Maintaining development cooperation with an attitude of openness toward (semi-)authoritarian and quasi-democratic countries is fundamental for the support of indirect efforts at promoting gradual processes of democratization.

[1]     Derick Brinkerhoff 2000: Democratic Governance and Sectoral Policy Reform: Tracing Linkages and Exploring Synergies, in: World Development, 28: 4, 601–615.

[2]     Tina Freyburg 2015: Transgovernmental Networks as an Apprenticeship in Democracy? Socialization into Democratic Governance Through Cross-national Activities, in: International Studies Quarterly, 59: 1, 59–71.

[3]     Tina Freyburg et al. 2015: EU Democracy Promotion by Functional Cooperation: The European Union and Its Neighbourhood, Palgrave.

[4]     Tatiana Zaharchenko/Gretta Goldenman 2004: Accountability in Governance: The Challenge of Implementing the Aargus Convention in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in: International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 4, 229–251.

[5]     Tina Freyburg/Sandra Lavenex 2018: Democracy Promotion by Functional Cooperation, in: Tobias Schumacher/Andreas Marchetti/Thomas Demmelhuber (eds.): Routledge Handbook on the European Neighbourhood Policy, Routledge.

[6]        Tina Freyburg/Solveig Richter 2015: Local Actors in the Driver’s Seat: Transatlantic Democracy Promotion under Regime Competition in the Arab World, in: Democratization 22: 3, 496–518.

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