European Democracy Hub

It is crunch time for the EU’s external action to support democracy and human rights. Democracy is one of the stated priorities of the EU’s new funding instrument, Global Europe, also known as the Neighbourhood, Development, and International Cooperation Instrument. For the first time, this initiative brings together a wide array of disparate foreign policy and development tools to allow for a more flexible use of the available funds, which total €79.5 billion ($80.6 billion). As the EU is now planning where this money will go, the union needs to show it is committed to integrating democracy into its development aid.

Doing development democratically is not only a matter of principle: it also yields better developmental results. Research conducted by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) shows that democratic institutions at both the national and the local level can act as drivers of economic development and that there is an electoral connection between economic development and democracy. To reflect this, as it moves forward with its new cycle of development funding, the EU will need to devise more open policy processes and better links between democracy and the union’s other external priorities.

The How: Greater Inclusivity

A good starting point may well be to make EU policy dialogue more inclusive and participatory. In recent years, policy dialogue has become central to the EU’s way of doing development, although the union has not really factored in the effects of its development interventions on democratic institutions. Most dialogues on development policies are held with executives, and while they sometimes include civil society, they most often keep at bay potentially troublesome democratic players, such as parliaments, trade unions, and political parties. Such a governmental bias undermines the sustainability of those reforms that the EU seeks to support, as it limits their ownership to those in power at a given point in time. This approach also puts the EU’s integrity into question for partner countries’ populations, who see important decisions for their development as being made behind the scenes and beyond public scrutiny. Expanding the base of support for EU policies and programs is paramount for their sustainability, and this can be achieved only by broadening the diversity of stakeholders at the table.

Sergio Rodríguez Prieto
Sergio Rodríguez Prieto is a policy adviser at the European Partnership for Democracy.

This is especially important when it comes to budget support, which in the last couple of decades has become one of the main modes of supporting partner countries, to the point of becoming most commonly associated with the principle of ownership. However, one may feel inclined to ask whose ownership is being fostered in the first place, especially in countries where democratic scrutiny is weak. In such cases, funds directly funneled to the treasury can become a lifeline for poorly performing governments. Indeed, despite EU insistence on sound financial management, transparency, and budgetary oversight as for awarding budget support contracts, the so-called mutual accountability between donors and recipient governments can easily give way to bargaining arrangements where expediency and effectiveness take primacy over democratic practices.

To avoid unwittingly undermining already faltering democratic systems, the EU can build on the successful rollout of public finance management programs and do more to attach proper democratic checks and balances to these. In other words, besides strengthening audit bodies, anticorruption agencies, and civil society organizations to act as watchdogs, EU delegations should put democratic consolidation—an alleged objective of budget support—at the core of their interventions to avoid the risk of bankrolling authoritarianism.

These lessons learned from budget support underline the need to introduce democratic safeguards into the flagship EU External Investment Plan. The growing importance of blending and other financing mechanisms in the EU development portfolio demands a thorough analysis of the impact that such investments can have on political dynamics. The private sector is a development actor in its own right, and injections of capital—whether to build infrastructure, ease access to credit, or support small and medium-sized enterprises—are certainly needed to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, blending money from different sources often blurs the limits between public interest and the drive for profit, while the sheer scale of some investments dwarfs the European Commission’s contribution. To avoid investment criteria suffocating democratic concerns, the EU should set mechanisms to promote transparency, accountability, and public participation, first and foremost with regard to its own contributions, but also with overall financial investments in mind.

Inclusiveness is, after all, the direction in which the EU has been steering its efforts to make its development cooperation more responsive to the needs of its beneficiaries. But for consultations to be effective, they need to move beyond the usual two-hour meeting and PowerPoint presentation. True engagement requires a more complex architecture for deliberation, as any evaluator with experience of running focus groups can attest. Similar tools to those used to collect feedback from partners, target groups, and final beneficiaries can be expanded to actual citizens from different backgrounds to create both an evaluation panel and a laboratory to promote democratic practices in decisionmaking.

Setting up citizen boards to evaluate development programs would be fully in line with the deliberative wave that is gathering momentum in Europe—see the European Citizens’ Panels in the Conference on the Future of Europe that ended on May 9—and could present EU delegations with a wealth of information about the factors that undermine the effectiveness of their programs. Promising initiatives such as the Citizens’ Assembly in Bosnia and Herzegovina may be a template for other third countries.

The What: Digitization, the Environment, Gender

One interesting novelty of the European Commission under President Ursula von der Leyen is that for the first time, the EU’s external priorities mirror the bloc’s internal ones—a commendable attempt to promote policy coherence at the highest political level. Through a so-called programming exercise, EU delegations sought to bring partner governments on board to steer each country’s development portfolio toward priorities that are not always perceived as urgent, despite the realizations that the digital gap keeps widening and that poor countries are particularly exposed to climate change.

However prescient EU development policy may strive to be, it will remain confronted with the usual problems of implementation, a task that falls on the shoulders of EU delegations with scarce human resources and severe organizational constraints. In their daily practice, work overload and heavy internal procedures often prevent delegations from delving into highly complex and multifaceted issues that are hard to handle even back home in relatively wealthier settings.

This is clearly the case with digitization, a profound technological revolution prone to wiping away whole professional sectors with Schumpeterian finesse. The emphasis of the European Commission Directorate-General for International Partnerships (DG INTPA) on jobs and growth aims at cushioning the most vulnerable from a double transition to a digital and green economy that is likely to give way to multiple unforeseen effects—a rush into the unknown that will require both caution and daring.

Given the impact that digitization is having on democracy both in Europe and elsewhere, EU delegations will need to tread carefully and call the attention of partner governments to such sensitive issues as data protection, the accountability of tech companies, and automated decisionmaking in public administrations. Failing to address these and other challenges can lock some countries into digital models and practices that are very hard to reverse. Because of the mismatch between the breakneck speed of technological development and the turtle pace of democratic consolidation, public authorities in partner countries must adopt an uncompromising stance with regard to digital rights. Donors like the EU should make sure that their funding is devoted to granting internet access to everyone or securing a free information environment, instead of acquiring cutting-edge technologies for dubious purposes or amplifying existing inequalities.

Similar dilemmas will suffuse the European Green Deal, which aims to make the EU climate neutral by 2050. To be fair, the initiative needs to hold to the principles of environmental democracy and instill them into its actions. Although some may still argue that the climate emergency requires expediency and centralized decisionmaking, the Rio Declaration stated as early as 1992 that “environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens.”

Imposed solutions tend to be biased, shortsighted, and ultimately unfair, which is why decisionmaking on environmental issues needs to be open and transparent. To this end, the principles of participation and access to information should inform every green deal between the EU and its partner countries, despite the challenges that this openness could entail for those EU delegations operating in closed political systems. Supporting political actors to align their programs to the environmental agenda, championing climate coalitions, advocating the passage of environmental laws, and supporting the enforcement of green policies are the kinds of actions that could strengthen democracy while fighting climate change. At the same time, the experience in Europe—where farmers have taken to the streets against measures stemming from the Green Deal in virtually every member state—has already shown that however well intentioned these measures may be, they can trigger strong reactions from those who feel most burdened by their short-term cost.

This need to adapt to the political developments of each partner country is what justifies DG INTPA’s espousal of what it calls geographization—a new jargon gem used to describe the increased devolution of resources and decisionmaking to EU delegations. However, there is one cross-cutting priority that could be instrumental in creating the conditions for a just transition to green and digital societies and also help democracy to thrive: putting women’s political participation at the center of gender strategies. The EU’s policy ambitions in this regard are far from shy and have been enshrined into the commitment that by 2025, 85 percent of EU aid will contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment. The recognizes that political rights play a crucial role in ensuring the sustainability of reforms and considers advancing equal participation and leadership one of its four key thematic areas.

However utopian it may seem in some contexts, women’s political participation provides EU delegations with a clear angle to influence the political systems of partner countries. This approach allows delegations to engage with major actors, such as political parties and parliaments, through nonpartisan initiatives aimed at creating more enabling environments across the board.

Persistent and pervasive factors, such as gender stereotypes, power structures, and a lack of access to resources, affect—and unite—not only female politicians but also activists, journalists, and public officials, who often advance the gender agenda through insider networks and policy coalitions. Through substantive, sustained, and flexible funding for these gender alliances at the country level, EU delegations and member state agencies could boost the impact of gender on development. This funding could take the legal form of framework partnership agreements (a type of long-term EU support), with multistakeholder engagement based on democratic forms of participation. Such an approach would create the institutional conditions to deliver on delegations’ and agencies’ policy ambitions.

Development requires societal change, which seldom happens overnight and needs long-term investments in human capital. This is the assumption that underpinned European Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen’s pledge to devote at least 10 percent of EU development aid to education. This is a clear commitment that is to be understood in the framework of the EU’s rights-based approach, which requires a good deal of sensitization, awareness raising, and citizen education. Building on the leverage provided by the union’s financial support, EU delegations hold a strategic position to champion the streamlining of democracy into national education systems and push for the introduction of civic and democratic notions into curricula. If youth is to become a positive driver of sustainable change and a key element for EU external action, young citizens need to awaken to their rights and duties early in their education and not just when they become eligible to vote.

The When: Immediately

Confronted with its moment of truth, the EU needs to act right away and place democracy at the heart of its development policy. None of the proposals outlined above to strengthen democracy through development programs comes out of the blue. Several EU delegations have been making use of opportunities on an ad hoc basis by using their EU road maps for engagement with civil society to try to improve democratic space or by applying a political economy approach to better understand the power dynamics that prevent reforms from gaining traction, however well intentioned they may be.

If coupled with these positive developments, the Team Europe approach could be a game changer and increase Europe’s collective clout when it comes to linking development and democracy. Supported by those EU member states with a presence in a given country, EU delegations hold a unique position to act as conveners, enablers, and funders of multistakeholder initiatives aimed at forging cross-party consensus on crucial issues for development. By focusing on processes instead of obsessing over results, Team Europe initiatives can help open up decisionmaking to otherwise sidelined stakeholders, ensuring that EU-funded programs are truly inclusive and participatory. This would set in motion the kind of dynamics that enable democratic space instead of shrinking it further.

For historical reasons, democracy support has been a low-key part of development cooperation, rather than intrinsic to its purpose and mission. But it has become impossible to dissociate them. Considering that a rights-based approach makes little sense in autocracies, aid from democracies should always be guided by democratic aspirations and, preferably, directed toward actual citizens instead of vague beneficiaries. For the EU, this means doing development democratically, however challenging that may seem.

Sergio Rodríguez Prieto is a policy adviser at the European Partnership for Democracy.

This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.

This document was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union.