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November 15, 2013

US Democracy Groups Mark 30 Years of Progress, Controversy

by Kent Klein

Democracy has made numerous advances around the world in the past three decades, thanks in part to several U.S.-based organizations. The National Endowment for Democracy and related groups are celebrating their 30th anniversary.

Much of the world is more democratic today than when the National Endowment for Democracy [NED] was established in 1983.

The private, nonprofit group, which receives funds from Congress, has helped foster that change, according to its longtime president, Carl Gershman.

"Our job, our responsibility, our mission, given by the Congress, is to be helpful, is to lend a helping hand. That's what we do. But the main driving forces are inside those countries, and it's basically the people in those countries," said Gershman.

The NED is one of several affiliated pro-democracy groups marking their third decade. The National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, linked to the two major U.S. political parties, have similar missions.  

The groups work with non-governmental organizations, political parties, democracy activists and some governments to help establish and strengthen democratic institutions. The NED does so by providing grants to those groups, while the party-backed groups are field-based - operating their own offices in the countries, said National Democratic Institute President Ken Wollack.

"In most all of those countries, we work with the ruling party, the opposition parties, we work with the government, we work with civil society," said Wollack.

However, field-based groups sometimes are vulnerable to opposition from host governments.  

The Republican IRI and Democratic NDI left Russia last year under pressure from President Vladimir Putin's government.

Melinda Haring, a former NDI program officer in Azerbaijan, and now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said field-based democratic aid should be used only in partly-free countries.

"When you're in a place like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan or even Russia, you have to pay the piper. You can't implement programs that really challenge the regime," said Haring.

Wollack points to numerous successes in which his agency has been involved, though, including this year's elections in Kenya, which were far more peaceful than previous ballots. "And a lot of effort was made in promoting dialogue between political parties, dialogue between the election authorities and parties, engaging youth constructively in the political process."

Gershman admitted that democracy often is slow to take root, but it has global demand. "Even in difficult countries like Saudi Arabia, or in North Korea, there are people, even there, who are trying to take the next step toward democracy. Over time, given enough time, I do think it's inevitable. I do think it's inevitable."

And for 30 years, the U.S. democracy groups have been making progress, one country at a time.