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Conceptual Background

Aid Agencies

The Yugoslav Case

Conceptual Background

The field of democracy assistance in the United States has been an object of concentrated study only in the last three decades. Although it can be traced to the Marshall Plan implemented in Europe after World War II, and the policies of John F. Kennedy, democracy assistance came of age during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1980-88). Like Kennedy, Reagan combined idealism with pragmatism: in both administrations, democracy was conceived as an instrument in the ongoing battle for hearts and minds against the Soviet Union. President Reagan oversaw the 1983 creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, which many scholars mark as the start-point for the development of theories and methods of democracy assistance.

Two key resources for the concept of democracy assistance are works by Thomas Carothers and Larry Diamond.  Diamond has been something of an insider: though an academic, he has enjoyed close links to the NED since its creation, and in 2004 took on the substantial challenge of contributing to US efforts at democracy promotion in Iraq.  Thomas Carothers, having worked for USAID, later moved to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he has written critically on US programs in Latin America, Romania and, most recently, the Middle East. References to specific works by these authors, and others, can be found in the project bibliography. Though there are substantial differences of opinion among scholars, they tend to share a vocabulary of key terms. Democracy Assistance covers a range of internationally funded efforts, including programs of political party development, legislative, constitutional and rule-of-law reforms, media and union strengthening, civic education, and supporting nongovernmental organizations or NGOs. The term Democracy Promotion highlights the "regime change" aspect of this kind of assistance.

Civil society was usefully defined by Michael Walzer in 1997 in two complementary ways
1) "the space of uncoerced human association"
2) "the set of relational networks - formed for the sake of family, faith, interest, and ideology - that fills this space"

The term can thus be taken as referring to an intermediate zone in the structure of society, usually perceived as between governors and governed in a society, or between the realms of government and private, family life. In this ideal vision, it refers to forms of collaboration between citizens to voice their opinions to their governments, or to meet needs, in ways that governments do not or cannot.

The term also refers to the organizations and institutions created in that space, and it is for this reason that non-governmental organizations are seen as critical components of civil society. Non-governmental organizations can, in this vision, include labor unions, consumer associations, interest groups (such as, for example, the United States AARP) and, depending on one's view, political parties.

Walzer's two formulations emphasize the non-coercive quality of civil society, which in Western and Central Europe and in the USA emerged organically over an extended period of time. They also emphasize the importance of intangibles like trust, confidence and communication in making such association possible.

Civil society, then, has both institutional and organizational properties, as well as attitudinal properties.  Importantly, it is theoretically distinct from civic community, which Larry Diamond classifies as including "only associations structured horizontally around ties that that are more or less mutual, cooperative, symmetrical and trusting" (1999:226).  At the heart of the concept of civic community is the concept of social capital, popularized by Robert Putnam, and introduced into the sociological literature by James Coleman in 1990.

Social capital is a term described to use what Coleman called "social-structural resources" which individuals can draw upon in various circumstances. A common example used is the formation of rotating credit associations, common in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. A group of people all pledge to put a certain amount of money into a central pot each month, and the whole sum is then available to one member each month. Without trustworthiness - or "high social capital" - such institutions could not survive, as individuals would be prone to defect or renege, once they had received their payout.

Putnam's discussion of the concept in Italy and the USA stimulated discussion of prospects for democracy elsewhere. He suggested parallels with post-communist transitions when he wrote that "The fate of the Mezzogiorno is an object lesson for the Third World today and the former communist lands of Eurasia tomorrow." Putnam's work, though the object of considerable critical scholarly debate, attracted the attention of President Clinton, who was looking to reorganize foreign aid in the mid-1990s.