Afghanistan: Democracy Promotion from the Outside

by: Abdulrasul Yusupov

From 1 to 12 September 2014, graduate students, researchers and practitioners from Afghanistan, the broader region and other countries attended the Summer School on Afghanistan after 2014, which was organized by the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in cooperation with DAAD. One of the most engaging sessions was moderated by Professor Andrea Ribeiro Hoffmann and was devoted to the issue of democracy promotion.

During the session, Prof. Ribeiro Hoffmann familiarized participants with the most recent theoretical trends associated with the phenomenon of democracy and challenges of its promotion in transition contexts. She presented some interesting findings resulted from her own extensive research in this sphere, particularly related to the experience of transition countries of Latin America. Also, she raised the following controversial issues: democracy promotion as a pretext for interfering in the internal affairs of a state, difference between democracy and legitimacy, relationship between political violence and democracy. Talking about the latter, it is worth mentioning that democracy is not always a peaceful process!

The session started with our attempts to define what democracy is about. Prof. Ribeiro Hoffmann gave us some definitions that are most frequently used in the scholarly literature. At the same time, she noted that a good explanation of democracy would encompass all types of contemporary ideologies, mainly liberalism and social democracy. In addition, we considered two popular democracy indicators: the one developed by Freedom House and the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI). It goes without saying that the second model is usually regarded as a more sophisticated one due to its complexity and additional variables to take into account when measuring democracy in a particular country.

From the question of how to define and measure democracy we smoothly moved on to the question whether it is possible to promote democracy from the outside. And if it is possible, then how? This, in turn, raises a number of questions, to which no one has a correct answer.

  1. Is there one size fits all model? Which model of democracy is the most effective in the case of Afghanistan?
  2. Who should promote democracy? This question caused a debate among the summer school participants. And though we did not come to a consensus, we agreed upon certain points. First, the question of who should promote democracy matters a lot. Second, it is not always a good idea that democracy is promoted by a former colonizer/occupier. Third, regional organizations are usually victims of their most powerful member states. Fourth, on most issues, there is still no alternative to the UN. And fifth, the EU can also be considered as a good option given its less dismal record in comparison with the US.

Coming to the difference between the US and EU democracy promotion, one should keep in mind that even though both of them pursue one goal, the means may be different. For instance, the EU pushes good governance agenda focusing mainly on institutions regardless of the regime type. In this model, it is government structures that matters; it is not important who comes to power. In contrast, the US through democracy promotion targets civil society and opposition.

When our session was over, we were divided into groups, and each group had a task to present one project on democracy promotion in Afghanistan or any other country on the following day. Thus people who were directly involved in such kind of projects shared what they considered as implementation challenges as well as critical success factors. According to Prof. Ribeiro Hoffmann, what was really amazing was that contrary to popular belief, not all the democracy promotion projects failed in Afghanistan. Which gives us a little but still hope for a better future for Afghanistan.