The Nordic Africa Institute


A new take on aid for democracy

Prof Göran Hydén sitting in chair giving a lecture

Professor Göran Hydén presenting his report at the Nordic Africa Institute. Photo: Mattias Sköld.

Date • 6 Mar 2020

Support to enhance democracy is one of the most problematic forms of aid, and, especially in African countries, results are poor. In a new report, political scientist Prof. Göran Hydén suggests a different approach.

In many cases, support to democracy is most needed where it has the least chance of achieving success: corrupt leaders are not interested in using aid to strengthen the opposition and thereby risk losing power. Donors know this, so prefer to support civil society organisations in such countries, hoping they will manage to push for democracy and civil rights.

According to Hydén, this has not been the most efficient way of working. He suggests that public authorities should also be able to apply for aid for democracy funding. To ensure honesty, an independent council consisting of donor, state and civil society representatives should decide together on where to allocate money.

“This model would change the donors’ role from just giving to also taking responsibility for the outcome. But, more importantly, it would contribute to autonomous and strong institutions in African countries. Similar models have been successful in cultural as well as small-scale business sectors”, Hydén explains.

Liisa Laakso portrait

Liisa Laakso.

NAI researcher Liisa Laakso studies the role of political science in democratic transformation in Africa. She says one reason for the failure of aid for democracy is because it is political in a context where political competition is deadly serious. In many African countries, electoral systems give all the power to the winner, leaving opposition parties without influence. Then, politics is only about winning elections at the expense of democracy.

“Another reason is that it doesn’t give quick results, compared to development aid promoting sanitation or infrastructure projects. Supporting constitutional reforms, improved election systems, effective parliamentary structures or the like are complicated matters and take longer time”, Laakso remarks.

She views Hydén’s suggestion as a way of placing democracy funds on the competitive market, and thereby incentivising African public institutions to engage in democracy projects.

Hydén, however, also wants to increase African ownership of aid and development in Africa. “His model can be seen as an improved version of the widely criticised budget support – more efficient and with less risk of mismanagement”, Laakso notes.

TEXT: Johan Sävström