USAID Democracy Programs Can Complicate International Relations
September 21, 2012

Russian officials say they are ordering the U.S. Agency for International Development to close its operations in the country because U.S. pro-democracy programs have interfered in its elections. While Russia is not the only country to make such claims, U.S. officials say foreign assistance is not used to support political opposition groups, but to increase democratic participation and peacefully resolve disputes and grievances.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the leaders of Russia asked the U.S. for assistance in building a democracy and a market economy.  

Over the past 20 years, election-monitoring groups, human rights organizations, and anti-corruption efforts have been funded in part by USAID, which has provided more than $2.6 billion to Russia.

President Vladimir Putin has now ended USAID's programs, reportedly out of concern they interfere with elections by aiding opposition groups. 

But David Satter, a foreign policy analyst with the Hudson Institute, said USAID programs do not pick political sides. Instead, he said, the programs try to help disenfranchised groups use legal, peaceful and democratic means to get their voices heard.

“The existence of such groups gives to people on the one hand the know-how to defend their rights, and on the other, the conviction that defending their rights is possible,” said Satter.

Earlier this year Egypt’s military leaders overseeing the transition to an elected government attempted to prosecute U.S.-funded pro-democracy and human rights groups. They relented after weeks of heavy diplomatic pressure from the United States.

James Goldgeier, the dean of American University’s School of International Service, said the most vocal critics of U.S. democracy programs often are elite leaders trying to hold onto power in the face of growing popular opposition.

“If you are an authoritarian leader and you have a group that is fostering civil society, you are going to naturally fear that, that funding is helping people who would like you to not be in the... not be the ruler anymore,” said Goldgeier.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has also been critical of U.S. pro-democracy efforts, saying they have attempted to undermine his socialist agenda. Goldgeier said the U.S. does indeed promote a different ideology.

“The United States in general tends to support democracy, a market economy, rule of law and protection of human rights. So if those things are at odds with what a particular government might be promoting then there will be a conflict,” he said.

Goldgeier says the U.S. does not pick political sides, but it does support building a framework of democracy that preserves majority rule and minority rights.