WASHINGTON, Sep 18 (IPS) - Almost two years after popular uprisings swept across the Middle East and North Africa, rights advocates are warning that ominous backsliding is taking place in countries across the region and beyond.
“There are promising signs of democratic progress in a region long dominated by brutal authoritarian regimes. But does this dramatic breakthrough reflect a wider trend towards democracy and good governance around the world?” asks a new report by Freedom House, a rights group based here. “The findings … suggest that it does not.”
The annual flagship report looks at 35 countries (of more than 70 overall) that are considered low- and middle-performing governments, rating them through the end of last year on a range of openness indicators. “Declines far exceeded improvements … in both number and scale,” Freedom House reports, highlighting particularly “large drops” in government accountability and rule of law.
According to these indicators, post-uprising Egypt appears to be at a similar level or even more poorly than prior to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, while the report also underscores deteriorations in Bahrain, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Tunisia is lauded for having seen through some significant reforms.
“The overall deterioration … is cause for alarm among advocates of democracy, particularly given the prevailing impression that prodemocracy movements are gaining ground,” the Freedom House analysts write.
In analysing these findings, researchers point particularly to the weakness of governance institutions. Most of these countries are ostensibly democratic, holding at least irregular elections – and, indeed, the one indicator that Freedom House reports has risen in recent years is with regard to the holding of elections.
According to many observers, however, international development projects have been overly focused on elections, while paying far less attention to the spectrum of additional governance work necessary, particularly the strengthening of institutions.
“The upheaval that has struck the Middle East over the past two years, including last week, demonstrates the absolute necessity of thorough examination of governance institutions that influence democratic governance,” David J. Kramer, the president of Freedom House, said on Monday while unveiling the new report.
“The importance of democratic governance to successful development aid cannot be ignored. The Arab Spring reminded us that while governments in developing countries downplay the necessity of fully democratic institutions, and offer assurances that aid will be put towards encouraging its economic growth, the people of these countries understand the value of fair and open governance.”
Moment of accountability
For decades, international bilateral and multilateral donors were – and, indeed, largely remain – notably resistant to engaging in work that engages too closely with politics. Some institutions have even been specifically mandated to keep their development priorities elsewhere.
Today, however, there is an increasing understanding that most development-related goals cannot be reached without greater thought and funding given to governance-related issues.
The United States’ foreign-aid arm, USAID, was the first major donor to move into the political sphere, and even that took place only two decades ago. The decision drew widespread derision from other donors and scepticism from those who saw the move as an attempt by the United States to influence the politics of other countries.
Yet today, issues of transparency are being discussed in development circles around the world, and at all levels. “This is a moment of democratic accountability – an incredible moment,” says David Yang, with USAID.
“It’s been a long time coming, but now it’s in the air. Many development organisations have come to the conclusion that they cannot successfully, in most cases in a sustainable fashion, promote social and economic development without good governance, without human rights and without democratic governance.”
Still, even today, of the roughly 130 billion dollars that donors spends on official overseas assistance, less than 10 percent goes to governance programmes.
“I can’t say whether that’s adequate, but I can say that when professionals are asked the biggest factor in holding back development programmes, they usually cite poor governance,” says Brian Atwood, a longtime development expert and chair of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Development Assistance Committee.
Of that 9.5 percent, Atwood notes, citing his own research, just one percent is spent on legislatures, and another one percent on anti-corruption and transparency issues.
“One has to ask whether these percentages relate to need or, rather, relate to what are most comfortable for the donors,” he says. “We need to ask ourselves how this distribution supports the democratic governance agenda.”
Comfortable or not, some suggest that there is little reason to spend time wondering why certain development indicators are not being met, or are being met far more slowly than anticipated, when politics continues to be seen as a hot-button issue for development funders.
“Any time we’re talking about programming money, we’re talking politics in a society – influencing the power relationships in a society,” says Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a government-funded group here in Washington. “So we need to realise that, in the end, development is always a political process.”
© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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