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Foreign Aid for the 1990s: Democracy

AS someone said recently, ``The genie is out of the bottle.'' With the turnarounds in Chile and Paraguay, and despite the setback in Panama, virtually every country in this hemisphere now uses or is moving toward some form of democracy. But the institutions of democracy in these countries don't work very well. Under the ``Democratic Initiatives'' program, the United States Agency for International Development (AID) is starting to provide technical assistance and training to the people who man these institutions. The theory is simple: Democracy is a technology, like agriculture, with principles and practices which can be recorded, improved, replicated, and taught. Democracies work through democratic institutions - the executive, the legislative, the judiciary, and the electoral system. These institutions can be transplanted to evolve in forms fitting each individual environment.

Some 20 years ago AID began the creation of democracy-oriented study and training centers in several universities in the US, and since then has assisted in the founding and growth of numerous faculties, think tanks, and private voluntary organizations working across the democracy spectrum. These organizations are prepared to offer training in how a congress works: national budget decisions, the analysis and drafting of legislation, administrative oversight, and the other functions assigned to each congress by each country's constitution.

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Latin American legislatures have a lot of problems. There is a crippling lack of information and the operational skills that legislation requires. Labor law is prepared without consultation with labor groups. Environmental legislation is drawn up in a scientific vacuum.

In a South American country an ``expediente'' - the official archive containing the background data, debate, and final passage of a law - is lost. Another country's legislature reviews, debates, and enacts a law already passed in an earlier session.

Similar anecdotes came out of every capital. What also comes out is a universal desire for these democracies, and their legislatures, to work. Citizens of all stripe and congressmen of all parties acknowledge the problem and want improvement. AID is offering low-key, low-cost assistance to this end.

Legislatures can be helped in many ways: AID will draw on US and Latin American scholars and consultants to offer seminars and short-term instruction in-country; US universities will offer longer-term study for career staffers, ranging up to graduate degrees in legislative administration; organizations such as the Center for Democracy, a private think tank, will set up face-to-face contacts between Latin American and US legislators, staffs, and political party managers. And AID will finance any other activity that leads toward the overall goal of improving operational efficiency and effectiveness.

An example of how it might work: In mid-1988, a two-day ``Seminar on Contemporary Models of Parliamentary Support'' was conducted in Chile by the State University of New York (SUNY) and the Catholic University of Valparaiso, with private support from the Andes Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, and IBM.

Seminar participants from across the Chilean political scene met with practicing politicians, academic advisors, and SUNY alumni from Brazil, Costa Rica, and the US. Chile's plebiscite four months later, in October 1988, set the stage for congressional elections scheduled in December 1989. The Catholic University of Valparaiso and SUNY are following through by setting up a ``Legislative Research and Assistance Center'' in Valparaiso to provide non-partisan research, training, and advisory services to the incipient Chilean congress. This model might be copied elsewhere.

In Guatemala, perhaps 1,000 candidates may present themselves for election in 1990 to 100 seats. A brief orientation for all 1,000 in the basic concepts of what a congress should do would leave 100 winners aware of the complexities of the job ahead, and 900 losers with some understanding and sympathy for the new office-holders.

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And in Paraguay, which for years has had one political party, a new president is talking about democracy and competing parties. If our diplomats can swing it, non-partisan technical assistance offered to all takers might lead to real multi-party competition in the elections several years from now.

This certainly smacks of meddling in the internal affairs of friendly nations, but political meddling by certified meddlers is an honored trade. If AID - an economic assistance agency - makes a false step on this turf, it will face the combined wrath of two governments - its own and that of the host country. With this in mind, the Democratic Initiatives program will focus exclusively on the mechanisms and workings of democratic institutions, keeping a distance from issues and decisions.

Democratic Initiatives is an unusual foreign aid proposition, and there are obstacles. Economic problems bring the threat of violent disruption; every country has its protectors of the nondemocratic status quo; our embassies are properly concerned about maintaining the best possible relations; US congressional overseers are put off by the long wait for results, and the AID bureaucracy can be counted on to complicate matters. Yet the timing is right. Democracy is ascendant in this hemisphere, and an initiative that in the past Latins would have viewed as intellectually repugnant and politically unacceptable is welcome today.

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