Promoting Democracy in Tunisia

Written by: Sarah Bush


Sarah Bush, the author of The Taming of Democracy Assistance, discusses the complexities of Tunisia's transition to democracy and what role democracy assistance can play.


Tunisia had a big 2014. The country—typically thought of as the Arab Spring’s main success story—was proclaimed “country of the year” by The Economist after it held free and fair elections for its first post-revolution parliament and president. But some observers have noticed worrying trends that could impede Tunisia’s transition to democracy, including high levels of unemployment and debt and the connections of the ruling Nidaa Tounes party to the country’s previous authoritarian governments.

Given both the opportunities for and challenges to democracy in Tunisia, many observers have called on the United States, European nations, and international organizations to do more to aid the transition. For example, Richard Youngs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently wrote that the international community “will need to remember the lesson from many other transitions: the international community has a tendency to shift its attention away from democratizing states prematurely, at a time when trends can still deteriorate dramatically.” In this blog post, I discuss what that support might entail.

What is democracy assistance?

As I explain in The Taming of Democracy Assistance, democracy assistance refers to the “aid that states, international organizations, and other donors explicitly give to promote democracy abroad.” A wide range of activities fall into this category, including support to aimed at improving countries’ quality of governance as well as funding for elections, political parties, and civil society organizations. Democracy assistance as we think of it today began in earnest in the early 1980s and grew significantly after the end of the Cold War. At that time, the wave of democratization that swept countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America created a demand from democratizing countries for foreign aid that would support their transitions. The end of the Cold War also ushered in a newfound commitment to promoting democracy on the part of the international community. As I document in the book, the United States has been the largest democracy donor, contributing more than $3 billion annually in recent years, although most European democracies and a range of international institutions—including the European Union and the United Nations—have also been active donors.

What is the “taming” of democracy assistance described in the book’s title?

The taming of democracy assistance refers to the evolution of democracy assistance since it began in the 1980s. When democracy assistance began, it primarily focused on activities that confronted the world’s dictators head on—by supporting dissident groups, elections, political parties, and trade unions. In contrast, democracy assistance today is a highly technical enterprise and is more likely to support activities—such as improving local governance or enhancing women’s representation—that do not directly challenge the survival of countries’ rulers. My book suggests that there are multiple explanations for this transformation. Most prominently, the explanations include the changing political priorities of donor countries, the changing characteristics of the countries that are the targets of aid, and the professionalization of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that design and implement democracy assistance. Although donor and target countries put important constraints on the work that these NGOs engage in, the NGOs—which I collectively refer to as “the democracy establishment”—also make a significant impact on how democracy is promoted overseas.

How likely is democracy assistance to play a democratizing role in Tunisia? 

Democracy assistance has a mixed track record. On the one hand, a number of excellent scholarly studies indicate that it is successful, on average, at advancing countries’ levels of democracy. On the other hand, case studies of democracy assistance suggest that programs can be counter-productive because they encourage local civil society organizations to become more worried about securing donor funding than about advancing democracy. There is some evidence that similar dynamics could be at play in Tunisia.

Ultimately, a key factor will be whether democracy assistance donors remain invested in promoting democracy in Tunisia. Investments involve both financial and diplomatic dimensions. On the financial side, donors have been generous, but they have not always kept their pledges to support democracy in Tunisia.  When money is limited, organizations in the democracy establishment fight fiercely for funding. This process is not necessarily conducive to democratization. On the diplomatic side, donors have to weigh their other interests in Tunisia—including stability (see the recent delivery of 8 Black Hawk helicopters)—against promoting democracy. When such competing interests are present, democracy assistance is particularly tame. Thus, for the international community to truly support democracy in Tunisia, donors will have to not just commit dollars but diplomatic muscle.

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About the Author: Sarah Bush

Sarah Bush is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Temple University and the author of The Taming of Democracy Assistance...

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