In this post, Dr. Catherine Herrold, assistant professor, discusses her new book Delta Democracy: Pathways to Incremental Civic Revolution in Egypt and Beyond, published on March 23 by Oxford University Press. Learn about building democracy in Egypt and lessons that can be learned for American foreign policy and the practice of democracy promotion.
What is the background of the book? In other words, why did you write it?
On its surface, Delta Democracy is a book about how civil society promotes democracy in the face of autocracy. But it is more fundamentally a book about how we understand the concept of democracy and how international donors and local civic organizations alike can promote democracy in ways that are culturally resonant, politically smart, and responsive to economic realities. While the book focuses on Egyptian civil society—specifically local NGOs and foundations—its findings about democracy promotion are globally relevant. These findings matter for scholarship, foreign policy, and the practice of foreign aid, and I hope that wide audiences will engage with the book and its arguments.
How did/have Egyptians “build/built democracy” in Egypt before, during, and after the Arab Spring uprisings?
Prior to the Arab Spring, there were virtually no overt efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. After former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was deposed, I observed two primary forms of democracy promotion among civil society organizations in Egypt:
- Human rights NGOs and international NGOs, backed by Western aid agencies, promoted a procedural form of democracy that stressed the reform of national political institutions: a representative parliament, independent judiciary, free and fair elections, and an independent media.
- Economic development NGOs, backed by local foundations, worked to cultivate a more substantive form of democracy—one in which citizens can express themselves freely, collectively address local priorities, and demand basic human rights from the government.
How do U.S. funders define “building democracy?” How is that definition or use of the phrase detrimental to actual democracy promotion and understanding on-the-ground context?
U.S. funders typically promote a procedural form of liberal democracy through a top-down approach. They fund projects related to legislative, judicial, and electoral reform, all with an underlying projection of free-market economics. This democracy promotion work is funded through distinct budget lines for “democracy and good governance” projects.
This strategy is problematic for two primary reasons:
- First, it is conspicuous. It draws the attention of host country governments and is easily repressed through laws and extra-legal measures.
- Second, it often fails to resonate locally. In Egypt, protesters weren’t calling for a Western style of liberal democracy. They were demanding multifaceted reforms that granted political freedoms, economic justice, and citizen agency. Western political institutions and free markets would not, Egyptians believed, deliver these more fundamental reforms.
How can the U.S. cultivate democracy on local organizations’ own terms—whether in Egypt or in other nondemocratic states? What does it require?
First, it will require American policy makers and aid officials to respect the priorities of local citizens and recognize that effective strategies to bring about change are more likely to come from people on the ground than from an increasingly dysfunctional U.S. democracy promotion playbook.
Second, it will require a better recognition of the interconnectivity of political, economic, and social forces.
Third, it will require acknowledging that form follows function, and that the cultivation of democratic values must go hand in hand with, and guide, the construction of democratic institutions.
Finally, it will require taking the long view. Democracy will not transpire with the overthrow of dictators or the hosting elections. It will evolve incrementally as citizens continue to demand and claim their rights and freedoms.
What recommendations do you have for funders in restructuring or implementing how they frame aid, grants, contracts, etc.?
First, de-silo grantmaking. Silos that distinguish between socioeconomic development and democracy promotion are obsolete and dangerous. Funders can find creative new funding categories that respect the intertwined nature of politics and economics and are not overtly threatening to government regulators.
Second, seek out new types of grantees. Currently, the vast majority of democracy aid goes to international NGOs and local human rights NGOs. Grants should also support socioeconomic development NGOs and grassroots groups that are doing the behind-the-scenes work of cultivating democratic citizens.
Third, reform application procedures and reporting requirements that are currently complex and bureaucratic. Applications should be simplified to be accessible to grassroots groups, and reporting requirements should be made flexible in ways that encourage donors and grantees to act as co-learners.
Fourth, serve as a role model. Currently, the U.S. is promoting democracy through aid while sidling up to “friendly” dictators and turning a blind eye to human rights violations. For democracy aid to have influence, the U.S. will need to double down on its own commitment to democracy at home and abroad.
What if local organizations or social movements react negatively to receiving “foreign dollars?” What can large foundations or aid groups do to support these grassroots (or non-grassroots) organizations?
Local groups absolutely do resist foreign funding, and they do so for three primary reasons:
- It draws government scrutiny,
- It comes with bureaucracies and Western agendas, and
- It makes grantees less legitimate in the eyes of their stakeholders.
This is where local foundations can serve as key funding intermediaries. They are typically large enough to process foreign aid grants, and, if given the freedom by donors, could re-grant funds from abroad to local groups and organizations. We are seeing the rise of this model in the community philanthropy realm, but it could also work in the private foundation realm.
Are there lessons or implications from the Egyptian context for U.S. nonprofits and social movements in “strengthening democracy” in the U.S.?
Absolutely. In 2011, Egyptians came together across socioeconomic, gender, religious, and other divides to fight collectively for democratic values. To be sure, much of that unity fizzled with time, as authoritarianism rebounded. But around the world, social change actors are calling for the same values—freedom, justice, and equality. Rather than focusing on the political platforms that divide us, can citizens find a way to reunite around the core values on which U.S. democracy was founded? This, to my mind, would be an essential first step to protecting our democracy here at home.
I also believe that the book offers relevant information about the coronavirus crisis that our world currently faces. In the past few weeks, countries sealed off their borders and sequestered citizens in their homes. Yet people around the world are finding creative ways to act collectively to contribute to the well-being of their communities, their countries, and the world writ large. As governments fumble their own responses to the coronavirus pandemic, NGOs, foundations, and everyday citizens are stepping up to act—just like the Egyptians did in 2011. My hope is that the civic mobilization that we are witnessing around the world today persists after the coronavirus has been written into history—just as Egyptian NGOs have persisted in promoting democracy over the past decade.
What are your “goals” for the book?
Often, academic books are primarily read by scholars and university students. My book also targets U.S. foreign policy makers and aid practitioners. It joins a growing literature that critiques U.S. democracy aid, but it also devotes the conclusion to laying out concrete recommendations for the reform of American foreign aid policy and practice. I hope that the ideas presented are debated and taken seriously in foreign policy communities.
This book has implications for research and practice. Why, as an academic, did you decide to include both theory and practice? What is the benefit to a wider audience of structuring the book and your research in this way?
As a Ph.D. student in public policy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, I was trained to ask policy-relevant research questions and to answer the “so what” question of why my findings matter. With such clear implications of this research for American foreign policy, it was natural for me to write a book that addresses both theory and policy. More generally, international relations scholars are increasingly asking policy-relevant questions and disseminating policy-relevant research. I am proud to be part of that trend. Shout-out to the Bridging the Gap Project, an initiative that promotes scholarly contributions to public debate and decision-making on global challenges and U.S. foreign policy. This book appears in the Bridging the Gap series at Oxford University Press.