How Democracy Can Win
The Right Way to Counter Autocracy
In the Foreign Affairs March/April 2023 Issue, USAID Administrator Samantha Power writes about how the United States is seizing the moment to counter authoritarianism and strengthen democracy worldwide.
Read on for select excerpts from “How Democracy Can Win: The Right Way to Counter Autocracy.”
When we help democratic leaders provide vaccines to their people, bring down inflation or high food prices, send children to school, or reopen markets after a natural disaster, we are demonstrating - in a way that a free press of vibrant civil society cannot always do - that democracy delivers.
Blinded by the Rights
At the core of democratic theory and practice is respect for the dignity of the individual. But among the biggest errors many democracies have made since the Cold War is to view individual dignity primarily through the prism of political freedom without being sufficiently attentive to the indignity of corruption, inequality, and a lack of economic opportunity.
This was not a universal blind spot: a number of political figures, advocates, and individuals working at the grassroots level to advance democratic progress presciently argued that economic inequality could fuel the rise of populist leaders and autocratic governments that pledged to improve living standards even as they eroded freedoms. But too often, the activists, lawyers, and other members of civil society who worked to strengthen democratic institutions and protect civil liberties looked to labor movements, economists, and policymakers to address economic dislocation, wealth inequality, and declining wages rather than building coalitions to tackle these intersecting problems.
Democracy suffered as a result. Over the past two decades, as economic inequality rose, polls showed that people in rich and poor countries alike began to lose faith in democracy and worry that young people would end up worse off than they were, giving populists and ethnonationalists an opening to exploit grievances and gain a political foothold on every continent.
Moving forward, we must look at all economic programming that respects democratic norms as a form of democracy assistance. When we help democratic leaders provide vaccines to their people, bring down inflation or high food prices, send children to school, or reopen markets after a natural disaster, we are demonstrating—in a way that a free press or vibrant civil society cannot always do—that democracy delivers. And we are making it less likely that autocratic forces will take advantage of people’s economic hardship.
To help rising democracies overcome such hurdles, USAID has stepped up with additional support. We have identified and increased our investment in a number of democratic bright spots, including the Dominican Republic, Malawi, the Maldives, Moldova, Nepal, Tanzania, and Zambia. That list is by no means comprehensive, and admittedly some of these bright spots shine more intensely than others in their commitment to democratic reform. But all are working to fight corruption, create more space for civil society, and respect the rule of law. Biden has also created a special fund at USAID so we can move quickly to help bright spots deliver on their key economic priorities as they pursue reforms and consolidate democratic gains.
But we don’t just want to boost our assistance to these countries; we want to help them prosper beyond the impact of our programming.
The U.S. government’s flagship food security initiative, Feed the Future, which works with agribusiness, retailers, and university research labs to help countries improve their agricultural productivity and exports, recently expanded to include Malawi and Zambia. USAID has also partnered with Vodafone to expand the reach of a mobile app called m-mama to every region in Tanzania. The app is akin to an Uber for expectant mothers, helping pregnant women who lack ambulance services reach health facilities and contributing to a significant decrease in maternal mortality. In Moldova, which is pushing ahead with anticorruption reforms despite ramped-up economic pressure from Russia, USAID has worked to increase the country’s trade integration with Europe. And at the UN General Assembly in September, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and I gathered the heads of state of many of these rising democracies, together with corporate executives and private philanthropies, to encourage new partnerships.
A Recipe for Renewal
The United States and other democracies must work more closely with the private sector and civil society groups to identify challenges, build partnerships, and increase investments in digital freedom around the world. At the same time, we must react to new challenges that journalists, election monitors, and anticorruption advocates face, updating democracy assistance programming to respond to ever-evolving threats. To that end, the United States has launched several new initiatives— many of them inspired by activists, civil society, and pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations—under the banner of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which Biden unveiled at his 2021 Summit for Democracy. For instance, we have heard from independent journalists around the world that one of the major impediments to their work, in addition to death threats and intimidation, is lawsuits brought against them by those whose corruption they seek to expose.
These frivolous lawsuits can cost journalists and their outlets millions of dollars, putting some out of business and creating a chilling effect for others. In addition to helping strengthen the physical security of news organizations, therefore, USAID has established a new insurance fund, Reporters Shield, that will help investigative journalists and civil society actors defend themselves against bogus charges. In recognition of the economic challenges all traditional media outlets face even in the United States, we have also organized a new effort to help media organizations that are struggling financially develop business plans, lower costs, find audiences, and tap into new sources of revenue so that they do not go bankrupt when independent journalism is needed most.
After years of democratic backsliding, the world's autocrats are finally on the defensive.
Back from the Brink
Democracy is not in decline. Rather, it is under attack. Under attack from within by forces of division, ethnonationalism, and repression. And under attack from without by autocratic governments and leaders who seek to exploit the inherent vulnerabilities of open societies by undermining election integrity, weaponizing corruption, and spreading disinformation to strengthen their own grip on power. Worse, these autocrats increasingly work together, sharing tricks and technologies to repress their populations at home and weaken democracy abroad.
After years of democratic backsliding, the world’s autocrats are finally on the defensive. But to seize this moment and swing the pendulum of history back toward democratic rule, we must break down the wall that separates democratic advocacy from economic development work and demonstrate that democracies can deliver for their people. We must also redouble our efforts to counter digital surveillance and disinformation while upholding freedom of expression. And we must update the traditional democratic assistance playbook to help our partners respond to ever more sophisticated campaigns against them. Only then can we beat back antidemocratic forces and extend the reach of freedom.