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It’s Time to Up Our Democracy Promotion Game

It’s Time to Up Our Democracy Promotion Game

It’s not enough to support activists. We need to create a competition in ideas if we want to end the worldwide recession in democracy.

Michael McFaul

In August 2021 President Joe Biden announced his plans to host not one summit on democracy, but two. The first, in December of 2021, will be virtual. The second, a year later, will take place, if all goes well, in person.

Anyone who believes in democracy around the world should welcome Biden’s commitment. For the past fifteen years, the world has endured a democratic recession: More countries have seen erosion in their democratic practices than have made progress. In the last year alone, coups in Sudan, Tunisia, Burma, Chad, Mali, and Guinea, as well as the Taliban’s return in Afghanistan, have fueled the sense that democracy is in rapid retreat. For a decade, American democracy, according to Freedom House, has seen its own decline, punctuated by the attempted insurrection on January 6. Meanwhile, autocracies are on the rise, especially in China and Russia. The crisis demands attention, which summits of democratic leaders will provide.

The deliverables planned for these summits seem focused on action plans by participating democratic governments to deepen their democracies, but this is not enough. Biden and his team need to ask these governments—alongside foundations, non-governmental organizations, multilateral organizations, and private companies—to collectively create new support for democratic societies, as well as for liberal and democratic ideas throughout the world. Such support must be both top-down and bottom-up. Therefore, at the second summit, Biden and his democratic partners should create a new multilateral organization to support non-governmental democratic activists and liberal democratic ideas around the world: the International Platform for Freedom (IPF).


In 2021 the world entered its fifteenth year of a democratic recession. The unity and power of the democratic world are also waning. American power has been declining relative to the world’s rising powers for the last three decades. The rise of the Chinese and Russian autocracies, in particular, threatens the power, prosperity, and values of not just the United States, but all liberal democracies, because the Chinese and Russian regimes have become increasingly autocratic and powerful at home, while pursuing in parallel foreign policies that have weakened democratic norms and institutions and strengthened autocratic regimes and illiberal ideologues. “Today,” Robert Kagan argues, “authoritarianism has emerged as the greatest challenge facing the liberal democratic world—a profound ideological, as well as strategic, challenge.” The ideas of democracy are also under assault in Europe, India, South Korea, Brazil—and the United States.

Against this sea of democratic erosion, a handful of democratic breakthroughs has occurred—most importantly in Ukraine in 2014 and Zambia in 2021. Moreover, many democratic leaders and movements have demonstrated amazing resilience within formidable autocracies, including those bravely fighting for freedom in Russia, Belarus, Hong Kong, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. The overall trends, however, are disturbingly negative.

Civil society leaders and organizations, especially, are under siege in many countries. Autocratic regimes and governments in transition have implemented laws and regulations designed to constrict their activities at home and limit their ability to receive funding from abroad. Vladimir Putin has taken the global lead in implementing such repressive laws, but other autocrats have now followed suit. NGOs have been labeled “foreign agents,” accused of treason, and subjected to restrictive registration requirements. Several countries have made it illegal to accept foreign funding even for nonpartisan activities wrongly labeled as political. Repressive governments have deemed all sources of foreign funding suspicious, but American government funding sources receive particularly negative attention. This worldwide assault on civil society started over a decade ago, but has accelerated in the last few years.

Independent media, too—broadcast, print, and online—have attracted a qualitatively new level of repressive policies from the world’s authoritarians. Journalists are labeled as foreign agents, have their websites blocked, see their money confiscated, and at times, suffer imprisonment or exile. Authoritarian regimes have also become increasingly sophisticated in blocking the free flow of information. In the old days, thirty or even ten years ago, you knew when you were being blocked: You couldn’t buy the New York Times at a Soviet-era kiosk or access Twitter without a virtual private network in China. Today, autocratic regimes create the illusion of access to independent media, sometimes through precise computer programs to filter “dangerous” reporting.

“Small d” democrats, democracy-supporting foundations, NGOs, and even some governments have pushed back. At the program level, some American and European NGOs still conduct impressive activities, often using more discreet means than just a few decades ago. Some individual actors in the field of democracy promotion have generated fantastic products that have been scaled to help tens of thousands of democracy activists—like the Signal app for making secure phone calls, developed by the Open Whisper Systems with support from the Open Technology Fund.

Nonetheless, the larger story about democracy promotion over the last several years is a depressing one. If you, your NGO, your foundation, or your government agency is in the business of supporting democracy, you may have implemented some successful programs on the individual level, but are mostly failing at the country level, let alone the global level, of slowing the tide of democratic decline. Just continuing, or slightly expanding, existing organizations and approaches is not enough. Our tragic moment calls for bold ideas, not incrementalism.

In other words, the current era needs new initiatives : (1) strengthening the “ideas” part of democratic assistance, rather than continuing to treat democratic development as an engineering problem; and (2) dramatically deepening the networks that connect small-d democrats around the world.

To achieve both aims, technology can help.

The Solution

Speaking before the British Parliament at Westminster in 1982, President Ronald Reagan outlined his rationale and ideas for what eventually became the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). NED was established through federal legislation as an NGO funded directly by Congress but completely independent of U.S. government control. NED is “dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world.” At the same time, Reagan and Congress cooperated to create four other democracy-supporting organizations, the core institutes of the “NED family”: the National Democratic Institute (NDI, affiliated with the Democratic Party), the International Republic Institute (IRI, affiliated with the Republican Party), the Solidarity Center (affiliated with the AFL-CIO), and the Center for International Private Enterprise (affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce).

NED and its partners and affiliates have had a profoundly positive impact on advancing democracy abroad and continue to do important work in support of small-d democrats around the world. For many human rights NGOs, media groups, and democracy movements, NED and its affiliates are their only source of financial support.

But today’s challenge of rising autocracy requires new players, innovative strategies, and more resources. That is why, on the fortieth anniversary of Reagan’s Westminster speech, Biden and other democratic leaders should use their second democracy summit next year to launch the International Platform for Freedom. NED could be one of the incubators of this platform or the core organization or secretariat for IPF, or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) could play the latter role. Preferably, however, an independent, international NGO affiliated with NED, USAID, and other non-American democracy-supporting organizations would serve this function.

IPF would provide the infrastructure needed to modernize and democratize the support of democracy around the world. Its main function would be to “make markets” via a multi-functional website, supported by an expert staff, between those who seek democracy assistance—ideas, money, training, and infrastructure—and those who want to provide such aid—foundations, NGOs, trainers, professors, governments, and private individuals. To be effective, this platform would have to be (1) multinational, not just American; (2) creative in providing support via new methods and technologies beyond the traditional grantmaking activities of aid agencies and foundations; (3) focused in particular on making horizontal connections among democratic activists around the world, associations that would not be mediated by Washington, London, or Brussels; and (4) designed to add value to, not compete with, existing efforts by governments, foundations, and NGOs.

Think of IPF as eBay, Craigslist, LinkedIn, Khan Academy, Amazon, PayPal, Substack, and Clubhouse all in one, designed exclusively for small-d democrats, but with intervention by well-trained humans, not just algorithms, to curate the flow of information about democracy for market participants and securely craft value-adding connections. Curation is key, and this curation must be informed by a clear commitment to democratic norms, as well as an appreciation of science, data, and research.

Of course, lots of thinkers about democracy, and liberalism more generally, are doing terrific work around the globe. And worldwide connectivity already exists among civil society organizations (CSOs), between donors and recipients, and between educational institutions and democracy activists. While organizations like Movement.Org and Open Collective are already facilitating this networking, so much more could be done and scaled. Just as eBay, Amazon, Uber, and hundreds of other companies have exponentially expanded the virtual connective tissue between producers and consumers around the globe, an international platform or organization dedicated solely to expanding opportunities for market-making between democrats that need support and those who want to provide such support could have the same multiplier effect in developing global democratic civil society. Because the absence of a profit motive has created a dearth of market-making in the nonprofit sector, governments, private foundations, and nonprofit organizations need to step in. And given the dire state of democracy around the world, the ethos and strategy of blitzscaling, not incrementalism, must guide the starting up of this new platform.

Donors

One menu or tab on IPF’s platform would list every one of the world’s financial supporters of NGOs, including government entities (USAID, Sweden’s SIDA, etc.), foundations, other NGOs, and private individuals. As a first small step, the website would provide, with donors’ permission, data on all potential sources of funding.

IPF would also organize these data into a readily searchable set according to types of projects funded, countries targeted for funding, size of grants, and other variables that would help guide NGOs looking for funding. The transaction costs between donors and recipients have to be radically reduced. Overhead costs of democracy-promoting organizations—in the U.S., these intermediaries are often called “USAID implementing partners”—also must be cut substantially, as has occurred with companies that have been disrupted by market-making technologies.

Finally, IPF would provide a secure way to allow new donors, including private individuals, to provide direct support to civil society organizations, independent media, legal defense groups, and similar entities around the world. With the same convenience with which Americans can donate to political candidates and campaigns, democracy supporters could log onto IPF and send $15—via bank account or bitcoin—to a women’s organization working in Afghanistan, an anticorruption NGO in Ukraine, or an independent journalist in Hong Kong.

Individual Americans would not be the only verified donors on this menu. Every individual in the world could be one as well. So could the Open Society Foundation, the Obama Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Google.org, USAID, the Olof Palme Peace Foundation, the Westminster Foundation, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, the UN Democracy Fund, and many more. Moreover, donors that already have decades of experience in funding people and organizations could amplify their support by serving as “influencers” on the platform. A grant from NED or Internews, for instance, would be a powerful market signal to other foundations and individuals to co-invest in the same NGO. The platform could facilitate financial transactions between people within the same country as well.

Of course, to make transactions safe and effective on this new platform, the IPF staff will need to provide substantial infrastructure and vetting support that goes well beyond transferring money on Venmo or paying for a Facebook ad. Every donor and recipient on the platform would have to be screened. Although the most sophisticated autocratic regimes would be likely to penetrate the platform, they already penetrate existing platforms, exchanges, and bank account transactions. The advantage of having thousands of donors on the platform is that the volume would dilute the autocracies’ claims of American meddling.

Beyond money, donors could also contribute in-kind goods—pro bono legal services, cloud space, training programs, insurance and, most important, knowledge about democracy. Once donors are screened and accredited, they can search the “projects” menu, explained below, to provide funding to a specific cause, group, or country. Eventually, these choices can expand into a crowd-sourcing platform like the vehicles now available to private companies.

Recipients

A second menu on the website would be a searchable database of every civil society organization, media outlet, democratic activist, and human rights champion seeking support. CSOs would be cross listed in dozens of ways, including by projects, general lines of work, and location. In addition to advertising their general activities, CSOs also could shop specific projects for which they seek support. Projects would include not just traditional CSO grant proposals, but also internships; specific requests for knowledge and technical assistance; and support for infrastructure, virtual or otherwise.

For instance, a civil society organization in Tanzania could use IPF to (1) seek funding for a workshop in Tanzania; (2) advertise an internship opportunity in Tanzania for American (or Armenian) students; (3) request an internship in California (or South Africa) for a staffer in its organization; (4) request a speaker who can provide specific knowledge about a topic (lobbying laws, for example) for a planned seminar; or (5) request an accounting firm to provide pro bono assistance with the CSO’s bookkeeping. In other words, many different kinds of support—not just grants—could be mediated on the IPF website. Over time, registered experts in the IPF system could be deployed to rate these projects in order to help potential donors make decisions. (A five-star rating for a media project from journalist and recent Nobel Peace Prize-winner Maria Ressa would mean a lot to potential supporters of independent media in the Philippines.)

As with donors, IPF staff would have to screen CSO applicants that want to join this website. It is a huge but not impossible undertaking, which could be completed partly by expert consultants.

Ideas and Education

Civil society activists want greater exposure to the literature on technical and organizational issues (fundraising, governance, and media strategies) as well as lessons learned from successful civic initiatives. They also yearn for more philosophical enrichment on the subjects of liberal and democratic ideas. Therefore, a third menu on the IPF site would provide a complete list of educational opportunities around the world, from top CSO activists and four-year college-degree opportunities to year-long sabbaticals like the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard or the Obama Foundation Scholars Program at Columbia to three-week training programs like Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law Summer Fellows Program. Again, IPF would aggregate this information, then make the database searchable along several dimensions.

As IPF scales, the website could develop matching mechanisms among individual civil society activists, educational opportunities, and funders. The platform could also run a 24/7 global “flying university” on democracy, at which Stanford’s Larry Diamond could give an hour-long session on democratic institutions or Serbian activist Srdja Popovic could do a ten-week course or a twenty-minute hot take on techniques of non-violent civic resistance. The million-member American NGO Momsrising.org could share—on a regular basis, not just at an annual conference—its methods of mobilization and engagement with similar organizations around the world. American NGOs fighting for democracy could learn from their counterparts around the world, most of whom they do not yet know. Brazilian NGOs and movements, for instance, have deep experience with combating police violence, yet most American groups focused on the same issue have never heard of them. Belarusians and Hong Kongers could learn from each other without U.S. mediation. Academics around the world could play a more direct role in sharing their research about democracy with democratic activists. (As a professor who has worked for an American democracy-promoting NGO, I am dumbfounded by how little interaction there is between these NGOs and academia and even more perplexed by how little interaction occurs between academics and activists.)

Virtual Libraries and Experts

A fourth, related menu on the IPF website would be a highly curated database of everything we know about democracy, liberalism, rule of law, independent media, trade unions, political parties, and civil society. Lessons we have learned about the roles played by NGOs in undermining autocracy, in transitional periods, and during the emergence and consolidation of new democracies are not readily available. Searching Google Scholar is not good enough. Moreover, civil society leaders around the world need to be informed by the comparative historical analysis that shows the advantages of democracy over autocracy in providing economic growth, peace and security, public services, and accountable government. By learning the history of democratic development in other countries, civil society leaders in new democracies can avoid the mistakes of failed transitions and help accelerate democratic change by adapting successful lessons from other countries.

IPF could establish a virtual library dedicated to democracy, with special “collections” on civil society and independent media development. IPF could also organize and run online courses. Moreover, funds permitting, IPF could contribute translations, from and into English, of seminal texts on democracy, human rights, and civil society. As a bare minimum, the Journal of Democracy should be available on the platform in several languages. Compelling content about democracy from around the world—podcasts, documentaries, blogs—should be translated and disseminated on a massive scale. With greater resources, IPF could commission its own studies and generate its own database of lessons learned.

IPF could also make a roster of experts available to consult directly with CSOs around the world on specific topics, including big issues like constitutional choices and smaller issues like establishing effective governance structures within CSOs. If they need to be paid for their time, IPF could facilitate third-party payment from foundations or individual donors. Often using virtual communications platforms (well before Covid), the private sector provides this type of expert knowledge to corporations, banks, and investment firms very efficiently; the nonprofit world does not.

Finally, IPF could give special attention to leveraging the tremendous amount of knowledge hidden away—and wasting away—in academic institutions. Better connecting universities with global civil society would have profoundly positive consequences for learning in both classrooms and NGOs.

Peer-to-Peer Partnerships

A few decades ago, the most common means of promoting civil society was “technical assistance” from established democracies to new ones, or from North to South. An American or European organization would send a group of experts or practitioners to a new democracy to conduct a training seminar to provide knowledge about a practice or institution of established democracies (for example, political parties and campaigns, journalism, electoral laws, constitutions, federalism, or lobbying). This method can still be effective, especially after the collapse of a long-standing autocracy, when new government and non-government leaders need an infusion of ideas to tackle the multiple institutional design issues they face. In the last several decades, however, as several dozen countries have made the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, the experiences of these newer democracies are not familiar to their peers in other new democracies or their would-be peers in autocracies.

International learning that has occurred about non-governmental election monitoring, from the Philippines to Chile to Serbia to Ukraine, is a fantastic success story of transnational networking; nevertheless, literally tens of thousands of civil society leaders struggling with shared challenges still remain disconnected. Helping them learn from each other could be a core function of IPF. Some organizations already facilitate this kind of knowledge transfer, including NDI and IRI in the United States and CANVAS in Serbia. The World Movement for Democracy provides another excellent example of such networking. But these efforts should be expanded exponentially. The “Democratic International” or “Liberal International” has to scale. Illiberal autocrats are organized and connected. Small-d democrats and small-l liberals have to do the same.

There are many ways to help this type of peer-to-peer networking: establish virtual networks, arrange virtual chats, circulate case studies, or convene annual summer schools (many NGO activists cannot be away from their local work for more than a month). A primary role for IPF would be simply to foster these horizontal connections.

Virtual Infrastructure

In the last two decades, many companies have disaggregated. All the departments of a company used to be under one roof. Now, many new companies outsource their legal departments, accounting departments, computing departments, administrative assistance, corporate writing, and even meeting rooms. To survive, CSOs need to move this way as well. Providing some administrative support virtually or offshore could be an additional function of IPF. For instance, IPF could provide or encourage others to provide servers to support CSOs’ web and computing activities, especially for those working in oppressive environments. With the same networking technology, IPF could connect CSOs around the world to law and accounting firms that want to do pro bono work. Through IPF’s virtual infrastructure, even financial advisers and health insurance providers could be mobilized to help CSOs, journalists, and individual activists.

Once all these databases have been compiled, donors and CSOs registered, and enthusiasm for the model generated, the entire process of supporting democratic activists, civil society, and journalism could be revolutionized. This kind of platform would multiply resources for supporting democracy, as well as democratize and internationalize democracy promotion. IPF could become the clearinghouse or “market maker” for donors, educators, and CSOs around the world. A CSO could submit a request for funding, technical assistance, or education to IPF. Funders from all over the world, from the Hewlett Foundation to the Montana World Affairs Council, could then bid on these proposals. The new platform could also attract individual donors who might directly support NGO activities abroad, further democratizing the democracy assistance business.

The reverse would also be true. Donors could submit requests for proposals, and civil society organizations could bid on them. The advantage of having one market for these transactions is that donors and recipients would learn from each other. They could use this virtual market to establish partnerships—multiple donors might respond to one project or multiple NGOs bid on a single donor request for proposals. This mechanism would also encourage more efficient donor coordination, avoiding duplication and resulting in more funds for more projects. At a minimum, the creation of a “common app,” like many colleges use today, would reduce the transaction costs of applying for grants. Similarly, donors and educators could rely on this new platform to help find and support democrats and avoid the slow, tedious individual screening process that foundations now undertake by themselves. Over time, crowdsourcing technologies could be introduced to help rate projects and requests for proposals.


IPF, if launched at a proper scale, would create possibilities for new approaches, ideas, strategies—and people. NED had this effect forty years ago, not only increasing resources for democratic activists around the world, but also creating a community within the United States of supporters for the global democratic cause. I know: I was one of them. Working for NDI in the Soviet Union in 1990 completely altered the course of both my political activism and my scholarship. The very act of launching a new international institution would send an inspirational message to NGOs worldwide about the global community’s commitment to their development and prosperity as well as to young people around the world seeking to join a transnational movement in support of democracy. After many years of innovation, growing strength, and learning in autocratic states trying to constrain civil society, a major initiative launched by the community of democratic societies to fight back would create positive, desperately needed new momentum around the world.

Small-d democrats around the world need something big, disruptive, and new. President Biden has the chance to deliver this type of inspiration and concrete support by launching the International Platform for Freedom. Reagan’s legacy has benefited greatly from NED’s creation, institutionalization, and success. IPF could do the same for Biden’s legacy.

Michael McFaul, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies, and Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, all at Stanford University. He served as U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2012 to 2014. His forthcoming book is titled American Renewal: Lessons from the Cold War for Competing with China and Russia Today.

DemocracyU.S. Foreign Policy

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