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Summer/Fall 2008 Vol. 8 No. 2

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Zimbabwe refugee in Johannesburg, South Africa, voting in a mock presidential election held March 29, 2008, ŠKim Ludbrook/epa/Corbis Gauging the Growth of Democracy

The U.S. Agency for International Development has supported democracy-building programs in about 120 countries and territories, spending nearly $8.5 billion since 1990. The programs' goals range widely, from nurturing online debate about democracy issues in Morocco to strengthening political parties in Peru to training civil servants in Iraq.  

Despite the substantial budgets and key foreign-policy priorities at stake in many cases, relatively little is known about which democracy-building initiatives work best, and why they succeed in some situations and fail in others. That's because few programs have been effectively evaluated, observes a new report from the National Research Council. In recent years, USAID has also reduced its institutional mechanisms for collecting and disseminating research on what's working -- all of which means there is a lack of data to help the agency target programs where they're most likely to be effective.

USAID should evaluate its programs more systematically and rigorously, the report says. The agency should start a pilot program of evaluations that try to separate the impacts of a specific democracy-building program from the wide range of other factors that affect the process of democracy in a country. When appropriate, these evaluations should use control groups to discern whether a program is having an impact. For example, an evaluation might look at whether more people participate in elections in a region with a particular voter-education program than in similar regions without it.

USAID also needs a better way to measure democracy, the report says. Yardsticks used by groups such as Freedom House or Polity work well for categorizing nations roughly as democratic, authoritarian, or mixed, and they can track a country's wholesale movement toward democracy. But they aren't very useful for assessing smaller changes in the nondemocratic and mixed regimes where USAID does most of its work. Instead, the agency should break the concept of democracy into smaller components. Is there regular turnover in top political leadership, for example? Is participation in elections unconstrained and extensive? Is there an independent judiciary? It is easier to measure a program's effects on a single component than on a nation's overall level of democracy.

The challenges that need solving in USAID's democracy programs are not just technical, the report adds. The agency needs to take steps to foster a learning culture -- for instance, through ongoing discussions of relevant academic research and case studies of programs.   -- Sara Frueh

Learning From USAID Experience in Democracy Assistance: Building Knowledge Through Evaluations and Research. Committee on Evaluation of USAID Democracy Assistance Programs, Development, Security, and Cooperation, Division on Policy and Global Affairs (2008, 336 pp.; ISBN 0-309-11736-4; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $67.75 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Jack Goldstone, professor of public policy, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va. The study was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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Copyright 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences