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Some Assembly Required: A How (Not) to Build Guide to Democracy

Tue, April 16, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Bay (Level 1), Bayview B


In recent years, populism and radical nationalism have taken root in democracies young and old, and pundits openly ponder a return of fascism and other forms of authoritarianism. Has the world lost faith in democracy? Did it perhaps put too much faith in democracy in the first place? To answer these questions, however, we must first determine what exactly democracy is, and as soon as we attempt to answer this seemingly simple question, we discover that, despite immediate appearances, the nature of democracy is neither straightforward nor uncontested. To diagnose what, if anything, has happened to the state of democracy is the current world and to think about the future of democracy in relation to sustainable development, we must first examine the different possible ways to conceptualize democracy. Perhap one of the most informative places to look for these conceptions is in the way democratic countries, like the United States, have attempted to promote and support democracies in other countries. Thus, this study uses democracy and education projects designed and implemented by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as window into American perceptions about democracy. Through an examination of how the United States, through USAID, seeks to promote democracy, we will examine what exactly is meant by “democracy” in the mind of U.S. development theorists and practitioners, and then seek to ask whether this notion of democracy provides a sufficiently robust framework for the creation of stable democracies and a sustainable future.

We argue that there are three distinct ways in which democracy can be conceived, and that these methods of conceiving democracy, while often used interchangeably, in fact, lead to distinct conclusions about the means and method of democratic governance. The first, democracy as values, largely confirms with the views of democracy found in documents like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, that it is a moral arrangement, based in the inherent rights of people, and largely accounted for by a set of civic virtues, like fairness, equality, and civility. The second, democracy as institutions, posits democracy as a set of specific rules and institutional arrangements, from relatively simplistic ones like Robert Dahl’s (1989) polarchy to complex ones like Acemoglu and Robinson’s (2012) argument for open economic institutions. The third, democracy as method, argues that, although both values and institutions have an important role to play within democracies, democracy itself is more a method of social problem solving, rather than a specific moral or institutional arrangement. While many democracies my reach similar conclusions on these issues, it is their epistemic function (Hilde 2012) of democracy to deal with complex social problems, that is most relevant. From this view, aspects that are frequently viewed as democratic failures, such as mass protests and expression of political anger, may actually be signs of a functioning democracy straining against current institutional arrangements, a symptom rather than an illness.

This study uses a critical discourse analysis (CDA) of systematically selected USAID’s policy artifacts to examine the dominant conceptualization of democracy that underpins USAID strategies. Our sample includes grant proposals, mid-term reports, final reports, promotional materials, background papers, global USAID strategies, and other relevant written documents pertaining to civic education projects in (1) Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, (2) Education, and (3) Environment and Global Climate Change in three Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Cambodia. Southeast Asia is a particularly interesting, and often overlooked in comparative international research, region because of its history of both democracy and non-democratic movements, its diversity, its geopolitical importance in China-US power relations, and its embroilment in the ‘Asian values’ critique to Western democracy. The three countries of particular focus here provide a spectrum of democracy, according to conventional measures, which allows for a more robust comparison. Our CDA critically examines the ‘framing’ of democracy within USAID projects designed to promote democracy in these three countries: how ‘democracy’ is typically explained, what are the common project activities used to promote democracy and what assumptions underlie the theory of change, and who benefit from the particular way(s) that democracy is conceptualized in these development projects.

As many scholars have noted, these project reports and documents are not artifacts of neutrality or innocence; most carry an implicit function of persuasion toward a particular worldview (Auld & Morris, 2016; Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). Thus, it is important to uncover the politics of knowledge production and world-building embedded within these seemingly insignificant products. In particular, we find that USAID projects primarily promote institutional views of democracy, ones that, although perhaps easier to conceptualize, design, and evaluate, do not reflect a robust view of democracy as an epistemic method, one that does not produce “ready-made solutions, but rather, complex responses to complex problems.

The critique of USAID’s role in carrying out the ideological mission of the U.S. is not new (Carothers, 1997; Tabulawa, 2003); however, this study builds upon the existing scholarship by problematizing the very essence of the model of ‘democracy’ that USAID (and the West as a whole) takes for granted. This opens up new possibilities for international development projects aimed at civic education and the fostering of democracy around the world: Perhaps it is time to move to practices aimed explicitly to cultivate public dialogue, social movements, civil protests, and relational struggles on a global scale against all forms of oppression and alienation (Davis, 2016).

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Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B. (2009). Globalizing education policy. Routledge.
Tabulawa, R. (2003). International aid agencies, learner-centred pedagogy and political democratisation: A critique. Comparative education, 39(1), 7-26.


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