CSAD Saturday Morning Panel: Teaching the Hungry How to Fish

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“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he might buy an ugly hat, but he’ll also eat for a lifetime.” – Anonymous

This morning’s panel highlighted the difference between institution-based and civic-based forms of democracy promotion. While earlier speakers like Michael O’Hanlon and Elliott Abrams focused on institutions as necessary and sufficient for democracy to take root, this morning’s panelists, which included speakers from the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, American Security Project, Freedom House and Albert Einstein Institution, focused on providing those citizens fighting for the right to self-govern the tools to implement such changes. The only echo of O’Hanlon’s and Abrams’ thinking on this morning’s panel came from David Kramer of Freedom House, who incorporated institution-based arguments into his defense of military intervention in concert with his organization’s work.

Institutions are labor-intensive. Building democratic structure from the ground-up requires extensive military involvement through invasion and nation building, leading to casualties and ill will on the part of the occupied citizens. On the other hand, social and cultural democracy promotion based on establishing civic traditions, specifically in nations where there is a stated demand for such change, is less costly and more legitimate.

Tom Garrett of the IRI laid out the five principles that his organization, along with their analogous non-governmental organization, NDI, operate under for democracy promotion: 1) party development and candidate training, 2) education about democratic governance, 3) public opinion surveys of the citizens of non-democratic countries to determine their priorities, 4) election monitoring and 5) civic education. I found the idea that democracy promotion should take the form of establishing democratic knowledge and values, rather than establishing military bases and black lists, very convincing.

One important critique of this model came from Melinda Haring, who pointed out that these organizations should be engaging in some level of triage. I agree that spending time, resources and energy on democracy promotion in countries where democracy is clearly not going to take root (Haring provided Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan as examples) is a waste: those resources could be spent in places where organic democracy has a real potential to thrive. It was noted that the IRI has recently taken steps to recognize this distinction while the NDI has not.

Promoting democracy in the softer, humbler and citizen-driven fashion advocated by this morning’s panelists paves the way for grassroots democratic movements to take hold. As Jamila Raqib of the AEI indirectly pointed out, providing citizens with the tools for non-violent resistance to a tyrannical regime is more legitimate than imposing freedom through external and violent force. Raqib also showed a trailer for her organization’s recently-released movie, How to Start a Revolution. It can be found here, although I warn readers that the trailer contains graphic images.

Democracy promotion that focuses on external regime change through an imposition of institutions is equivalent to giving a poor man a fish, or even many fish. Providing the citizens of a country with the civic knowledge and wherewithal to make democracy work on their own is teaching that same man how to fish for himself. You may not like the clothes he chooses to wear while he fishes, but he will no longer rely on you for his survival, and may even give you a fish or two every once in a while. Providing the means necessary for self-sufficiency is the highest form of charity; our leaders should recognize this as they seek the most efficient and effective methods of promoting democracy abroad.

1 comments on “CSAD Saturday Morning Panel: Teaching the Hungry How to Fish”

  1. The title of the conference should remind us of another singularly important consideration that should inform the choice of democratization strategy. 

    If the driving force for committing to change a country is moral, the approach should lean to the least coercive.  However, if national interest is primary and non-coercive means have already failed, or are deemed likely to fail, active coercion should be used, the range of which includes aggressive diplomacy, sanctions of varying severity, and covert and/or military actions of appropriate magnitude.

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