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Should the EU Stop Funding Autocrats? A Democracy Debate

¿Debería la UE dejar de financiar a autócratas? Debate sobre democracia

Erin Jones|

The Democracy Debates is a new multi-stakeholder forum for debating policies and politics impacting democracy. Led by the Open Governance Network for Europe with support from Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy, the Democracy Debates will regularly convene European policymakers and politicians with civil society, academics, and philanthropists to debate and discuss ideas for democratic solutions to shared problems facing our democratic values, systems, and societies.

The international community had long praised and supported autocratic countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia for their economic growth, but arguments for authoritarian development have been called into question, most recently, for example, with the eruption of violent conflict in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia in November 2020. Can authoritarian models of governance truly deliver on development in a peaceful and sustainable manner? In this context, the question emerges: Should the EU stop funding autocrats? To help answer this, the Open Governance Network for Europe, Carnegie Europe, and European Partnership for Democracy convened a Democracy Debate to hear from experts on both sides. Here’s what they said:

The argument in favor of aid cessation centers on signaling and accountability. Perhaps most obviously, the European Union (EU) undermines its commitment to democracy by providing aid to authoritarian regimes. Nic Cheeseman pointed out that, despite a shrinking budget, “we still see some of the largest aid disbursements going to authoritarian regimes.” By continuing to fund them, the EU risks legitimizing dictatorships. Moreover, in an environment lacking accountability, autocrats may well redirect the money toward their own efforts at retaining power. The EU’s self-proclaimed values are thrown into question when it continues to funnel money to regimes that every day commit human rights abuses and suppress civil society actors striving for political representation for all.

On the other side, the argument against the total withdrawal of aid emphasizes urgency and need, as well as geopolitical rivalry. Due in part to the pandemic’s devastating social and economic effects, the need for aid is enormous and increasing. Change agents—both inside and outside of civil society and government—need support. Aid cessation risks cutting off people in these countries who are struggling for democratic reform. Like blanket sanctions, blanket aid withdrawal may ultimately punish citizens instead of the regime. As Christine Meisler explained, “these are often fragile states threatening a violent conflict, and in these cases aid is often a stabilizing factor to avoid more insecurity and violence for the most vulnerable.” Furthermore, the total withdrawal of funding can actually make regimes more brutal and give them an excuse to clamp down harder on civil society actors. Finally, a disengaged EU could also translate to other global powers like China or Russia coming in to ‘fill in the gaps’.

To avoid abetting authoritarianism while also supporting democratization efforts and providing humanitarian aid, civil society representative Maureen Kademaunga said that the EU must strike a balance. To enhance accountability, as it has begun to do inside its borders with rule of law conditionality for funding, the EU should engage more critically, ask tougher questions to autocrats and not simply trust that aid money will end up in the appropriate hands. Close monitoring and risk analysis for misuse of support and human rights violations should be conducted in detail. Maureen suggested, “as an activist in Africa, I would love to see funding from the EU being directed towards programs that give agency to the people.” Indeed, it is essential to  include more (and more diverse) civil society actors to avoid mismanagement of funds, negative human rights effects, and corruption. Still, the state should not be entirely excluded as a recipient of funds, so as to incentivize civil society and government to work toward the same goal and to avoid harming state institutions that support democracy and good governance.

Looking ahead, positive conditionality and more targeted support offer promising tools for improvement. Positive conditionality shifts focus from punishment for bad behavior to reward for good behavior. This instrument may give authoritarian regimes more compelling incentives to democratize. More targeted, personalized support and/or sanctions can refocus funds toward trusted agents working on political reform. Further, A recent guide from the Open Government Partnership shares tools for embedding transparency, accountability, and citizen participation into the management of international aid. Through these approaches, the EU can avoid complicity in human rights violations while empowering citizens to decide their own futures. However, a remaining obstacle to these solutions exists in repressive laws that block civil society from receiving funding. In many cases, the EU will have to figure out how to navigate these laws and get money into the hands of the people. Ultimately, outstanding questions relate less to the reduction of aid and more to the specifics of how this money can be most effectively repurposed.

For more takeaways from the Democracy Debate series, see ‘Does Europe suffer from too much polarization, or too little? A Democracy Debate’.

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