When democracy support goes wrong — field notes from fragile states

A retired Canadian diplomat reflects on lessons learned from a career spent trying to nurture more decent governments in other countries

By: /
16 December, 2020
Aerial view of Independence Square in Kyiv during the uprising of 2014. Giles Clarke/Getty Images

I spent the last decade of my diplomatic career running fragile states stabilization programs from Ottawa, or as an ambassador in the western Balkans and Ukraine. I learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work when it comes to democratization support. Canada and other western governments are quick to tout their successes. What I’m sharing here are the rather less publicized top five mistakes — usually made with the best of intentions.

1. Buying into the perfect at the expense of the good

Though I myself did not live through Ukraine’s 2013-14 Euromaidan Revolution, I followed the ebb and flow vicariously from Belgrade, where I’d already encountered the dispirited veterans of Serbia’s own uprising of a decade earlier. On my arrival in Kyiv in October 2014, you could still see and feel the imprint of solidarity, heroism and resulting exalted hopes for the future. These expectations were driven first and foremost by Ukrainian activists — but we westerners signed up for the most far-reaching version of sudden and complete societal transformation. And when reality inevitably failed to live up to these high standards, the activists we ourselves subsidized were first off the mark to tag every failure or even compromise as zrada — Ukrainian for betrayal — spreading debilitating despair where perhaps only disappointment and recommitment would have been appropriate. As a Canadian working on Supreme Court reform in Ukraine asked me: “Why can’t the Ukrainians be satisfied with 80 per cent renewal and cleaner judges? Does it have to be 105 per cent?”

2. Focusing on anti-corruption instead of strengthening the rule of law more generally 

This was in response to the insistence of much of the Ukrainian public that all corrupt and generally bad people in the country be brought to account — relitigating, if necessary, the entire period since independence. A sizeable international consulting industry has sprung up providing independent anti-corruption advice and frameworks. But these entities rarely work as planned, especially in environments where corruption is not a discrete sectoral problem but a dominant parallel informal operating system. If anti-corruption is pursued truly vigorously, it is threatening to almost the entire political class. 

3. Messaging: iconic beats bureaucratic

In Serbia, the European Union spent hundreds of millions of euros on worthy but scarcely noticed projects, such as redoing storm sewers. Russia would then show up with a team of divers at an emotionally fraught moment in river flooding, or it might promise to add a few more frescoes to the Temple of Saint Sava. Such projects were public relations triumphs, even though they cost little and failed to address livelihoods or rights. Flat, technocratic language and imagery is our collective public sector comfort zone, but we should discourage it in our civil society partner organizations, lest we leave them speaking a lingo ordinary people in their own countries can’t understand or relate to.

4. Investigative self-destruction

The one emotionally charged form of media programming that we donors did support in Ukraine was investigative journalism. At one point in 2016, there were three weekly anti-corruption shows, two subsidized directly or indirectly by America and one funded by Canada. The sheer quantity of exposés led to unintended consequences. These included a numbing of the audience to the never-ending stream of allegations, most of them concerning post-revolutionary authorities, coupled with a sense that, because it was being talked about non-stop, corruption was worse than ever and could only be solved by yet another round of “throwing out the bums.”

“Never assume that deposed elites are permanently vanquished or that progress is inevitable.”

5) Too much caution when speed is required

In a post-revolutionary situation, the window for reforms doesn’t stay open for ever. One of the first meetings I attended on arrival in Kyiv was with then-president Petro Poroshenko’s point man on reforms, who told us that he urgently needed salary top-up funding to recruit and retain mid-level people who could actually make changes happen. In our Canadian case, we were fortunate to have a quick and flexible expert deployment project that could fund reform implementation teams for six-to-12-month stints. But the really big players — the EU and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development — took three years to get their initiative off the ground. It was more comprehensive in scope, took account of broader civil service dynamics and had longer time horizons — all good sustainability stuff. But their bright young strategic directorate recruits arrived in the final year of the presidential term, with tactical electoral considerations coming to the fore. They missed their chance to really make a difference and are already being shuffled out.

Getting it right the next time

What, then, are the lessons I would draw on if called upon to deal with a similar post-revolutionary or post-election situation in a country with lots of human capital, low levels of income and a threatening neighbour — say, Belarus or Moldova?

  • Prioritize aid for what is most important for national resilience and work with local stakeholders to adjust your own level of ambition, if not necessarily theirs.
  • Do not do unto others what you would not try on yourself. Your partner country is not a laboratory for ideal-world experimentation. Enemies of change who know their system far better than you do revel in the obstructionist power of complexity. Don’t add to it unnecessarily. 
  • Never assume that deposed elites are permanently vanquished or that progress is inevitable. Overpromising and underdelivering (both on the part of national governments and international partners) feeds revanchism. If transitional austerity is unavoidable, allow for some timely reallocation of tangible benefits for the broad public to buffer the shock. 
  • Give your technocratic stick figures the spark of life by infusing your governance concepts with relatable local context that people can take to heart.  
  • Be wary of subsidizing the left hand to demolish what the right hand is building. Support for independent media should not be a license for inquisition or vendettas, especially in the absence of effective libel laws. 

Is any of this a guarantee that bad local political leadership, arrogance, cronyism or hostile external disinformation and subversion won’t frustrate your best efforts to support reforms nurture better governance? No. But you’ll be better able to give your partner country and its active citizenry a fighting chance at success.

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