Review of Julie Fisher’s Importing Democracy

Review of Julie Fisher’s Importing Democracy

While aware that more research is necessary to assess different contexts, Julie Fisher eloquently argues that democracy can be built best through NGOs and civil society rather than through military operations and other foreign policy tools.

This is an important work if for no other reason than Fisher’s core proposition that civil society and particularly democracy NGOs offer a more cost effective means of expanding democracy around the world than the use of force or other foreign policy means.

Her comparison between the $2.5 billion a year that the U.S. spends towards democracy assistance in 80 countries certainly seems to offer a far cheaper and more effective policy choice than the American attempt to export democracy by force at the cost of some $2 trillion over 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fisher follows USAID’s assertion that their democracy assistance has doubled democratic changes in assisted countries in comparison to what would have been achieved without such aid. “Importing Democracy” in this context means that local leaders and activists will be more successful in effecting democratic change if they import tools and methods from countries around the world that they think will most help their efforts.

The reasoning is that they are best at developing democratic strategies in their own political cultures. Indeed this proposition is demonstrated by the successes documented over three detailed case studies that show positive gains by NGOs.

Still, there are differences in time and place that make one question the approach. The patterns of progress in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina are very different. Fisher is aware of differences across states when she acknowledges in her conclusion that more research is needed to determine what methods work best under particular conditions

She certainly acknowledges well-known findings that countries with strong economies are more likely to sustain democracy, or that regimes that extend to local communities through community based organizations are more likely to enjoy legitimacy than those tied only to urban populations and elites. Indeed this last proposition is directly related to the value of civil society and state-society relations that her work advocates.

This research is a natural progression from studies of comparative development and democratization that were important contributions in the 1980s and 90s. These works found that democratic development took many paths linked to dependency issues, class interaction, cultural and historical myths, geography, and the sequencing of key stages of reform.

No two democratic political systems were identical in their formative stages. Furthermore, as early as the 1970s there were those who already found civic engagement to offer promising results.

All of this work is more sophisticated and offers more options than the post WWII model of democratization that proved successful for Germany and Japan, but proved out of step with the realities of Iraq or Afghanistan. Neither country had the democratic dynamism of Weimar Germany or the innovation of the Meiji Restoration to build upon.


The more problematic case is Argentina, particularly since it recalls a strong critique of civil society approaches from the late 1990s. By contrast, South Africa is a showcase in sustainable democracy.

Fisher’s characterization of Argentine politics as reflecting a tension between authoritarianism and freedom as well as a tension between regions and the centre offers a strong start. It leads one to conclude quickly that Argentina has not enjoyed strong and settled institutions.

It is therefore not surprising that in times of crisis Argentine governments have given way to coups, and that financial crises have led to rapidly expanding poverty. Moreover the continuing legacy of Peron through Peronist parties has offered a central role to those who do not fully value accountability or democracy.

The early history of church and civic associations filling in the vacuum left by weak institutions is a reminder of a critique of the civil society literature by Sheri Berman. She held that civil associations in Weimar Germany filled a vacuum left by unpopular parties and ultimately were integrated into the Nazi movement and facilitated its rise.

In Argentina labor unions and other popular organizations were similarly co-opted by Juan Peron and facilitated his version of populist authoritarianism.

While the link between civil society and authoritarianism in Germany seems to relate to Argentina, the good news is that the excesses of the Dirty War are shown to have led to democratic change. There is now real commitment to human rights and effective activism by democracy-oriented NGOs.

Moreover these have served as links between local community organizations and national ones. Despite concerns about continuing corruption even in rule of law, it would also appear that human rights and due process are finally getting mature roots in the Argentine system.


Fisher’s strong work may overstate its argument with regard to the case on Tajikistan. The reader strains to see much democratic reform happening here. Both traditional society and Soviet rule were best characterized by top-down undemocratic structures.

Local “mahallas” or councils do have a tradition of public space for deliberations, but these are family or clan-based institutions not run by the government. Both those outside of the clan and the women in the clan are precluded from attending. Authority in Tajik culture is only accorded to male elders from the head of household level all the way to clan chiefdoms.

If democracy is supported by strong economies it is not likely to take root in Tajikistan. It has the lowest GDP of any former Soviet republic. There are “waqfs” or foundations for Muslim schools and mosques as in other Muslim countries, but it is not clear why their activities have any real impact.

The slim reed upon which democratic change is supported is the cultural tradition of deliberative meetings. This has helped an NGO named PCDP foster public dialogues. The authoritarian president’s party does consult with small minority “pocket” parties and sometimes accommodates policies in light of this. It is referred to as an “Inter-Tajik Dialogue.”

There are other positives as well. A women’s professional group that supports women educated under the secular Soviet regime has tacit government approval. An association of political scientists seen by the government as doing neutral policy analysis has made progress against human trafficking and capital punishment.

A Judicial Consortium has made progress in defending local business interests and media companies against the government. Progress has been made in training the police in civil liberties. There were also major negotiations that ended a civil war and another that led to resolution of a refugee issue.

However, even with ongoing support from prestigious organizations like USAID, Open Society Institute, USAID, and the British Embassy, there has only been limited movement. There are elections but the turnout is low, and over 80% vote in the past process has been for the dictator’s party.

When local NGOs reported less support for democracy initiatives from their NGO donors it likely reflected an assessment that democracy was not likely in the near term, but that positive reforms have been worth the effort.

South Africa

South Africa is by far the most persuasive case presented in the study. Here we see elections and legislative rule as far back as the early Dutch settlers but these are limited to whites and actually even precluded poor Afrikaners until 1948 under British rule.

Despite repression, the African National Congress was formed in the 1950s and soon created alliances with an Indian advocacy group and an integrated labor movement. Civil society organizations truly were instrumental from the beginning of the movement.

Near the culmination of efforts in 1987 the ANC also joined with an anti-Apartheid Afrikaner group to form the Institute for Democratic Alternatives, (IDASA). The group organized meetings between civic groups and government officials. This democracy NGO has now expanded to issues like transparency, accountability, and deepening participation.

Other civic groups today are addressing issues like AIDS, economic inequality, violent crime and children’s rights.

Ultimately this book offers strong evidence of the positive role of civil society, but the case is best proven in South Africa where democratic institutions were most mature and only needed universal expansion.

Categories: International, Politics

About Author

Lawrence Katzenstein

Lawrence Katzenstein has taught at the University of New Orleans and the University of Minnesota. Through an affiliation with the Humphrey Institute he was one of the trainers for the initial Chinese WTO delegation. He has been an exchange professor at the Consolidated Universities of Shandong Province and an embedded social scientist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He earned a B.A. in political science from CCNY and an M.A. and Ph.D in political science from Rutgers University. While at the University of Minnesota he also completed a teaching post doc in International Business.