Should Canada be in the business of promoting democracy in fragile states? The simple answer, of course, is yes. Who, after all, is opposed to a system of representative rule that demands accountability from public officials? Strengthening democratic governance abroad is, after all, compatible with Canadian values of peace, order and good government (whether it is in the national interest – particularly if we aren’t comfortable with the outcome – is the subject of an entirely separate article).

The trickier question is not should Canada work to build democracy abroad but how. There are at least two approaches that do not involve the use of force: the first is largely “technical,” and emphasizes the strengthening of formal governing processes and institutions; the second is “political,” and involves the promotion of space for individuals and groups to exercise their human rights. Neither is necessarily mutually exclusive to the other. But an inclusive democracy depends on the advancement of both. Indeed, any efforts to strengthen democracy in places that have weak systems of governance will likely fall short of their intended objectives if donors focus on the former and ignore the latter.

Donor governments like technical solutions to strengthening democracy because, comparatively speaking, they are tangible, quantifiable and relatively easy to administer. This is one of the reasons why so much emphasis is given to elections. Logistically, they are relatively easy to organize; voter lists can be created, polling booths set up, etc. Financially, they are relatively inexpensive, at least compared to other types of investments. Politically, they serve a number of purposes. They are, after all, the cornerstone of any democratic system, the mechanisms through which peaceful transitions of power are permitted to take place, and evidence of the universal appeal of democracy. Moreover, if all goes according to plan (meaning there is a clear winner and the process has been deemed to be both free and fair), they serve as tangible evidence of Canadian tax dollars being put to good use.

Other examples of technical solutions include strengthening the checks and balances within and between branches of government, establishing review and appeal mechanisms, and creating processes for independent or third-party audits of government activities. Basically, the aim of these initiatives is to limit the potential for authority to be used arbitrarily, and minimize instances of executive discretion without oversight or appeal mechanisms.

While these are all essential components of any democratic system, they are not synonymous with democracy. Even when operational, they guarantee neither inclusiveness nor an equitable distribution of power within a society. Nor do they guarantee citizen participation beyond the ballot box. They are all means, not ends in themselves.

A truly vibrant democracy requires the emergence of a political culture that values inclusiveness, meaning that space is made available for people from all sectors of a society to not only be heard but also included – even if only minimally – in decision-making processes. For donors, this means moving “beyond the technical” when engaging with countries that suffer from weak governance and internal conflict. Unlike technical solutions, political solutions require a deeper and sustained form of engagement in which the ultimate aim is to convince those who hold power to share it with those who do not. Unfortunately, how to do so is by no means obvious.

So what are donor governments to do?

One thing that donor governments can do is attempt to build up civil society within a fragile state. But, make no mistake, this is a political act. When donor governments choose to support one group or sector over another they are – whether intentionally or not – altering power dynamics within a country. Moreover, when donor governments choose to support one group over the state – often for reasons of corruption and inefficiency – they risk undermining the state by doing an end-run around it. Although this strategy often addresses donors’ immediate or short-term needs, it can also have the undesired effect (or sometimes desired, depending on the circumstances) of compromising long-term stability and sustainability.

Arguments relating to neo-imperialism aside (again, that is the subject of an entirely different article), another option for donors is to focus on the promotion and advancement of human rights, and hope that inclusive democratic rule emerges as a by-product of a stronger rights climate. Rights, after all, are tools for bringing about political and social change, their purpose to secure certain entitlements that are threatened by either direct violence or a broader spectrum of threats to safety and well-being.

But which rights should donors attempt to advance? Depending on the circumstances, addressing threats to economic and social rights may be a prerequisite for advancing political and civil rights, such as in cases of humanitarian disasters or governance failures in which fragile states are unable or unwilling to provide for the basic needs and safety of their citizens. Put bluntly, the thinking goes that democracy is worth very little on an empty stomach.

But the opposite may also be true. If the source of the problem is an abusive government, then the most appropriate course of action might be to emphasize political and civil rights – specifically freedom of expression and association – in order to allow space for grievances about basic needs to be heard, and hopefully rectified.

Of course, all this is very theoretical. Rarely is there ever a “correct” answer to questions of rights and sequencing. Compelling cases can often be made for giving priority to one set of rights over the other. Ultimately, for a society to truly function, both need to be advanced. But for policy makers who must make hard choices about where and how to spend limited funds, setting priorities can be difficult.

This leads to a subsequent dilemma for donors. In the process of setting policy priorities, there may be a temptation to look only for technical solutions to what are inherently political problems. Technical solutions are relatively uncontroversial, both at home and abroad. But they are not enough on their own. For democratic rule to take hold, political obstacles will need to be overcome.

More specifically, if a country’s elite have no interest in sharing power, or have only a tepid commitment to democratic reform, then no amount of regulation will produce meaningful or lasting change. When donors pay little heed to the political, then any technical gains will undoubtedly be tenuous, susceptible to backsliding.

Andrew S. Thompson is a Special Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo. He is co-editor of Haiti: Hope for a Fragile State (2006).