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Promoting Democracy Abroad or Interfering? - 2004-02-11

In his State of the Union address last month, President Bush repeated his commitment to promote democracy in the Middle East. He vowed to double the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization that promotes democratic movements around the world. Its work is highly regarded by many. Others question its involvement overseas. Zlatica Hoke takes a look at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The National Endowment for Democracy, or NED is funding hundreds of projects around the world, several of them in Turkey. The project called Gencnet is designed especially for young people.

“In Turkey, genc literally means youth. And Gencnet is a three-part project and it’s been going on for four years now," says Thayer Scott, director of communications at the International Republican Institute, an affiliate of the National Endowment for Democracy. He says the Institute uses NED funds to send trainers and set up programs for the youth in Turkey.

“Throughout the year, they have a series of regional workshops and it happens in cities and provinces throughout Turkey, mainly with students. And they bring in trainers to talk about ways that students or young people can get involved in their own local towns or cities and communities to make them solve problems and the like,” says Mr. Scott.

The training is used in practice as soon as possible, he says. For example, students in one small Turkish community learned they can appeal to their local government to improve lighting on the road from their school to the bus stop. The institute also helped create the Gencnet website, which enables young people throughout Turkey to communicate and learn from one another.

Thayer Scott says this is just one example of the kinds of support the International Republican Institute gives to pro-democratic activities in some 50 countries.

“So this can include anything from teaching people in political parties how to make a member list and organize their party and vote for party leadership, how to run a campaign, how to send out press releases, how to take opinion polls to find out what the voters think and want, how to do communications with the news media and advertisements on TV and so on,” he adds.

Much of this work is funded by grants from the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, a foreign-aid program established in 1983 to advance democracy abroad. Nominally, the Endowment is a private organization, but most of its budget, currently about $40 million per year, comes from the federal treasury.

“It passes much of its funds through to four other institutions who are engaged in pro-democracy work: the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and also a business and a labor institute," says Robert Pastor, director of the Center for North American studies at American University in Washington. "But it also supports directly through hundreds of grants each year to pro-democracy groups in Africa, Asia Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and also the former Soviet Union,” says Professor Pastor.

The National Endowment for Democracy was established as a private group to overcome the restraints that limit the activities of a government agency. It works under supervision of a board of politicians from both the Republican and the Democratic parties to ensure the non-partisan nature of its work. Professor Pastor says the Board has a sizable staff that reviews proposals and approves of the grants.

“Undoubtedly any grant that it gives may be subject to some controversy, particularly in highly polarized situations," says Professor Pastor. "But, I think overall, they do have many layers before they make a final decision.”

The Endowment gives out some 300 grants per year, ranging from $50,000 or less to several hundred thousand. It currently funds projects in 90 countries. In Africa it helps groups struggling for peace and a civil society. In Congo, it is credited with a major role in pressing belligerents to negotiate an end to war. In other African countries, such as Kenya and Nigeria, NED grants have helped prevent erosion of democratic gains. In China, the Endowment has used the country’s opening to support programs designed to increase the free flow of information, including intellectual exchange, and to support Tibetan civic education and democracy projects. In Latin America NED grants have helped create networks for journalists.

In countries that do not allow pro-democracy groups, such as North Korea, the Endowment sometimes supports efforts to raise international awareness of human rights conditions in the country.

In the past, it supported the Polish labor union Solidarity in its struggle against the communist government. More recently it has funded the Serbian Radio B92, one of the few media outlets opposing the regime of former President Milosevic. Since both the Polish and Serbian regimes were toppled, the National Endowment for Democracy has taken some credit for this.

Many Americans, including Professor Pastor, say these are successful examples of promoting democracy: “It’s very good to have an organization such as the National Endowment for Democracy that is willing to work with counterpart organizations aimed at reinforcing and nurturing democracy growth throughout the world, if you believe that democracy is a universal value, as I do.”

But critics argue NED money has been used in too overt political ways. They say in Georgia, for example, it helped oust former President Eduard Shevarnadze. In Venezuela, it has funneled thousand of dollars to groups opposing President Hugo Chavez. And in Nicaragua it has supported the presidential candidacy of Violeta Chamorro.

U.S. Congressman Ron Paul says American taxpayers’ money should not be used to fund these kinds of activities. Daniel McAdams, his foreign policy advisor says: "They provide campaign materials for political parties in foreign countries. You can call it what you will, but if you funnel a bunch of money into a political campaign in a foreign country, you are affecting the outcome of the elections. There is no question about it. If you are buying campaign literature for one political party, you are helping them in an election.”

And that constitutes intervention in another country’s political situation, says Daniel McAdams. What’s more, he adds, who is to say that the Endowment is supporting a just cause or the best candidate? “As a matter of fact in Slovakia," notes Mr. McAdams, "the candidate that they were fighting against - Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar - had been persecuted by the communist regime and the people who they supported were for the most part former communist officials in Czechoslovakia.”

American University professor Robert Pastor says there is nothing wrong with supporting groups in other countries as long as it is done in an open and legitimate way.

“That is to say, we should not intervene in a country unless we are invited by individual groups and unless the government is aware of what we are doing because democracy does require both transparency and accountability," says Professor Pastor. "So that does not constitute intervention in my judgement.”

Robert Pastor says even if U.S. organizations are invited to help, they must be cautious about lending support. They should not get involved on behalf of one particular party or candidate, but rather make clear they support the democratic process.