Philanthropic imperialism

Democracy building, or democracy assistance, is a putative socio-economic policy solution, which, because of the extent of the political and economic forces impacting on it, has become a contemporary socio-economic problem. Democracy building’s institutional formation rests upon a reconfiguration of Cold War positions that retain, what Dr. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky termed ‘such interference,’ (1) so as to continue subversive covert operations previously perpetrated by the CIA or MI6. This then, is a difficult area and few researchers are looking at the matter at a sufficient level of objective enquiry to satisfactorily outline some of its major contradictions. The bulk of researchers studying this problem propose policy solutions from within an overlapping institutional framework that ignores or rationalises subversion to effect covert foreign policy attempts at ‘regime-change,’ and are themselves sub-vented as part of the process. Democracy building becomes the cover for a policy goal that has always been surrounded by an enormous amount of deception. But we can identify a chain of command: organisations that were designed to engage in a duplicitous process of marketing philanthropic imperialism as democracy.

In this essay I will touch upon the relevant dominant US institutions (and some of the European organisations to a lesser extent) that comprise the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) ‘family’. I also examine several academic approaches to democracy building from social researchers, and examine how these relate (and tend to focus on isolated measurement). Some observations on the ‘backlash’ against democracy building with particular reference to the recent Lugar Report (2) also form a significant part of the essay.

The NED’s Vice President, David Lowe described its formation thus:

‘In the aftermath of World War II, faced with threats to our democratic allies and without any mechanism to channel political assistance, U.S. policy makers resort-ed to covert means, secretly sending advisers, equipment, and funds to support newspapers and parties under siege in Europe. When it was revealed in the late 1960’s that some American PVO’s [Private Voluntary Organisations] were receiving covert funding from the CIA to wage the battle of ideas at international forums, the Johnson Administration concluded that such funding should cease, recommending establishment of “a public-private mechanism” to fund overseas activities openly.’ (3)

The NED was devised to eliminate the stigma associated with CIA covert activities in the wake of Watergate and the Church Committee. According to William Blum it was a masterpiece ‘of politics, of public relations, and of cynicism;’ in effect, enabling the CIA to launder money through the NED.

‘We should not have to do this kind of work covertly,’ said Carl Gershman in 1986, while he was president of the NED. ‘It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the CIA. We saw that in the 60’s, and that’s why it has been discontinued. We have not had the capability of doing this, and that’s why the endowment was created.’

Allen Weinstein, who helped draft the legislation establishing NED, declared in 1991: ‘A lot of what we [NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.’ (4)

Incensed by the duplicity of the NED’s activities which now perpetuate the subversive activities of the CIA, a new foundation of progressive American scholars, lawyers and activists have started The International Endowment for Democracy (IED) ‘dedicated to promoting real democracy in the country that needs it most, the U.S.A.’ Their website <> hi-jacks the NED identity, in a manner not dissimilar to the NED’s own dissembling abroad, providing several articles which convincingly portray the NED as a modern Trojan Horse. This salon des refusés, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Harold Pinter, Greg Palast, Edward Herman et al, have amassed a body of work that exposes NED orchestration of the failed coup against President Chávez in 2002, the 2004 coup against President Aristide of Haiti resulting in the slaughter of thousands of women, children and men, and similar dirty work.

The Wooden Whores

Most conventional social researchers of democracy building are concerned with ‘measurement’ of some kind and unconcerned — largely one could presume due to proximity – with the real politik of how the large wooden NED horse is trundled into the citadel of academia to gain access to, as we shall see, even fundamental data sets that provide the basis for analysis.

On a general level there is no reason to suppose that much work has been done that examines and scrutinises democracy building to an adequate level, never mind penetrating the intrigue or following the money. Wersch & Zeeuw (themselves funded by Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs via the Clingendael Institute) state that apart from initial work by Peter Burnell (who writes for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), the British version of the NED), Thomas Carothers (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace & IDEA) and Krishna Kumar (USAID and Clingendael Institute), ‘there have been almost no evaluations or systematic studies looking at the impact and lessons learned of political party and democratic assistance.’ (5)

Adverse criticism of the NED by other well-funded institutions certainly exists. Barbara Conry, foreign policy analyst at the right-libertarian Cato Institute, argued back in 1993, when the British WFD was being modelled on it, that the NED:

‘…has a history of corruption and financial mismanagement, is superfluous at best and often destructive. Through the endowment, the American taxpayer has paid for special-interest groups to harass the duly elected governments of friendly countries, interfere in foreign elections, and foster the corruption of democratic movements.’ (6)

Christine Cubitt, in a study of democracy promotion in Africa, quotes the African scholar, Claude Ake, writing in 1996, observing that the globalisation of democracy had been so trivialised and non-threatening, that:

‘…political elites around the world…[could] now embrace democracy and enjoy democratic legitimacy without subjecting themselves to the notorious inconveniences of democratic practice.’ (7)

Cubitt’s work draws heavily on Carothers and Kumar mentioned above, to rephrase the ‘backlash’ argument via Gordon Crawford’s work for Centre for Development Studies at the University of Wales. Crawford argued that there is:

‘A dearth of critical analysis on the role of external actors and their impact on local democratising initiatives or, more importantly, no participatory evaluation involving informed local people to establish an ‘internal perspective’ on donor programming.’

Crawford argues that an ‘internal perspective’ is key to effective and constructive criticism of donor activities and programming. (8)

That no one thought to ask the victims of democracy building what their opinions were is some indication of, yes, the convoluted use of the term; but also how the process perverts fundamental principles at the most basic level. Crawford’s work problematises the evaluation of democracy, whose status is adduced according to Mark Robinson with ‘no generally accepted methodology or set of indicators.’ Acknowledging that methodological questions remain unresolved, Crawford identifies six main issues that he uses to assess the contribution of external assistance to democratisation in a particular country:

* The multiplicity of actors and factors in complex political change and the difficulties of differentiating the contribution of a single actor;

* with and without scenarios and issues of counter factuality;

* external-internal relationships

* the overall political context

* time-scale

* unintended impact.

And he asks: ‘Within this the question arises: What would have happened anyway without external support?’

Another concern is the level of assessment of the inter-relationships between internal and external actors. Although USAID is mentioned, there is absolutely no mention of the NED or WFD despite Crawford’s firsthand experience of both at the Foreign Office’s Wilton Park Conference in association with the WFD; and the Clingendael Institute’s 11 March 2005 conference organised by USAID (and his participation in the Expert Workshop on ‘Promotion of Democracy’ organised by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung). (10) In this evaluation the focus is on what the report (quoting Carothers) terms the ‘false dream of science…the belief that all those messy particularities of people and politics can be reduced to charts and statistics.’

Polity, Polyarchy and Freedom House

Gretchen Casper and Claudiu Tufis (11) argue that democracy, like representation or power, is a basic concept in political science that is inherently difficult to measure. Social scientists have accepted different trade-offs between consistency and operationalisation when constructing their measures, resulting in a range of different measures of democracy, which, despite high correlations, are used to produce different results. Part of their work provides a summary of the ways in which the subject is studied. Academics argue that democracy entails competition and participation: candidates for public office compete in elections and citizens participate in the process by selecting the winners. This minimal definition was revised by including additional dimensions such as political rights and civil liberties, socio-economic equality, uncertainty and the absence of military influence. Not surprisingly, the number of survey measures of democracy mirrors this diversity of definitions. These measures include: Polity, Polyarchy and Freedom House, which we will examine below. It is common for the authors to show that their measures correlate with the others, to establish their reliability. However, while these measures may correlate highly, they vary in a number of ways, including the dimensions used to measure democracy, the time period covered, and the number of countries included. But there is a commonality amongst funders in that they link back to the NED ‘family’.

Casper & Tufis cross-referenced three data sets. They did not provide information on the funders of these projects, which I have added, the presence of which challenges their notions of diversity and is a potential conflict of interest and objectivity. These are:

Polity — this includes democracy and autocracy indicators for over 160 countries from 1800-1999 by coding five institutional dimensions. The Polity IV Project provides access to data sets coded with annual information on regime and authority characteristics for all independent states (with greater than 500,000 total population) in the ‘global state system’. Casper & Tufis fail to mention that the project’s organiser, controversial race and IQ theorist, Tatu Vanhanen, sits on the International Political Science Association’s Research Committee with Larry Diamond, co-director of the NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, USAID’s Advisory Committee and co-editor of the NED’s Journal of Democracy.

Polyarchy — was constructed to explain ‘the emergence of democracy’ and codes 187 countries from 1810 to 1998 on competition and participation and then equally weights them to create a democracy index. Casper & Tufis fail to mention that this data set is the result of a collaborative project between Tatu Vanhanen and the International Peace Research Institute funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, the Research Council of Norway, the United Nations and the World Bank.

Freedom House — this survey was created to ‘measure freedom’, it is ‘essentially a survey on democracy’ and coded 192 countries from 1973 to 2002 across two dimensions — political rights and civil liberties, on a 7-point Likert scale, whereby countries coded 1 were most free and those coded 7 were least free. Obsessed by Likert scales, Casper & Tufis fail to mention that Freedom House is part of the NED ‘family’.

So on close examination we find evidence that the US government seeks not just to seize and command the agencies of democracy building, but also wishes to control the information that would structure any analysis of it. We can identify this again in the work of Transparency International, also part of the NED family, which aims to control an index of ‘corrupt-ion’, which, in practice, is utilised as an adjunct to extending US influence, albeit remodelled with a humanitarian guise. (12)

To give them their due, Casper and Tufis’ critique is that social scientists treat the three measures as virtually inter-changeable, choosing to use whichever one had more complete coverage of the time period they were interested in, more favourable geographic coverage, or some other reason. Casper and Tufis’ subtracted a country’s ‘autocracy score’ from its ‘democracy score’ added Vanhanen’s democracy index and transposed the two Freedom House scales. They also included socio-economic and institutional explanatory variables commonly used in democratisation studies and institutional variables such as types of executive systems and party fractionalisation. Of the nine variables tested, three are consistent across the democracy measures and time periods (income, parliamentary system, and party fractionalisation), but only one (party fractionalisation) is consistent across the measures and all robustness checks. All that means is that if you pick a few people in charge administratively and they tend to be from at least two different political parties then it’s a democracy.

The Lugar Report

To emerge from this examination of measurement and move on we will note the NED’s own criteria, which were drawn up by one of their ‘family,’ the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. This argues that states with restrictive laws tend to exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:

* a ‘closed’ or command economy;

* government by leaders with autocratic tendencies;

* political dissent, either internal or within a neighbouring country, is considered a threat to the current regime or incumbent part;

* concerns about religious fundamentalism or, more specifically, jihadist Islam;

* a contagion or copycat effect of similar legislation or practices introduced across neighbouring regimes;

* a record of human rights abuse;

* and purported concern about foreign influence or interference.

I draw these criteria from The Backlash Against Democracy Assistance, a 2006 report prepared by the NED for Senator Richard G. Lugar who is dumbfounded that all the US’s largesse is rejected. (14) But even though the report tells us that democracy building as a policy solution has turned into a nightmare, there is no sign of willingness to reconsider: criticism on a widespread basis is easily dismissed in the NED’s closed world. The ‘report’ is a seemingly interminable expression of faux surprise at other regimes’ xenophobic resentment towards foreign spies, black propaganda, heavily funded ‘protest groups’ and media, consultants and agent provocateurs fomenting civil unrest with the overthrow of the state as their aim. The Lugar Report’s sources are all within the NED ‘family,’ thus engendering that familiar patriotic exclusive tone that criticises other governments with a paucity of self-reflection. No reversal of perspective is allowed here, none.

‘Governments often propose an ‘official’ rationalisation for a proposed law that does not match the reasons perceived by the international community and local civil society groups. The threat of terrorism is increasingly invoked to justify clampdowns and to deflect international criticism.’ (15)

The author of that paragraph, Barry Lowenkron, also states:

‘When states find that their efforts to pass or apply restrictive laws and regulations against NGOs are not enough, they resort to extralegal forms of intimidation or persecution. Often these regimes justify their actions by accusations of treason, espionage, subversion, foreign interference or terrorism. These are rationalizations; the real motivation is political. This is not about defending their citizens from harm, this is about protecting positions of power.’ (16)

But a litany of expressions of amazement at, for instance, Hugo Chavez’s prosecutions against NED attempts at subversion in Venezuela cannot hide the fact that the Lugar report seems worried. It finds that:

‘Foreign governments’ efforts to impede democracy assistance – from legal constraints on NGOs to extra-legal forms of harassment – have recently intensified and now seriously impede democracy assistance in a number of states. This backlash is particularly pronounced in the former Soviet states of Eurasia, as well as in China, Venezuela, Egypt, and Zimbabwe. Representatives of democracy assistance NGOs have been harassed, offices closed, and staff expelled. Even more vulnerable are local grantees and project partners who have been threatened, assaulted, prosecuted, imprisoned, and even killed.’ (17)

In addition to impeding democracy assistance efforts, ‘regimes are adopting proactive approaches, channelling funds to anti-democratic forces and using ersatz NGOs to frustrate genuine democratisation.’ (emphasis added) (In other words, the NED is criticising other countries phoney NGOs by saying that the NED’s phoney NGOs are more real.) The impact of all of this has been a ‘chilling effect’ on democracy assistance, ‘intimidating some groups and activists, and making it more difficult for them to receive and utilise international assistance and solidarity.’

It is actually helpful to forget about real democracy to comprehend the report: we are not talking about Athens in the golden age of Pericles, more Alice in Wonderland. It uses the term ‘democracy promotion groups’ to incorporate the key organisations of the NED ‘family’ of institutes: Freedom House, the Open Society Institute and Internews. (18)

Former CIA personnel in NED

Many of the historic figures involved in the CIA’s covert actions have, at some point, been members of the NED’s Administrative Council, or of its board of directors: among them Otto Reich, John Negroponte, Henry Cisneros and Elliot Abrams. Currently it is presided over by Vin Weber, founder of the ultraconservative Empower America association and fundraiser for the presidential campaign of George W. Bush in the year 2000. Its executive director is Carl Gershman, a former Trotskyite responsible for the US Social Democrats and a member of the neo-conservative trend. Just how self-referential it all is can be indicated by: ‘Unattributed quotes are taken from interviews conducted with NED and institute staffs.’

The NED’s attempts to explain away its covert aims are at times laughable:

‘As a leading State Department official noted upon returning from Moscow, Kremlin officials believe that the “U.S. government or the West directs the activities of NGOs in order to weaken Russia, or in order to advance,” as one Russian said, “your own geopolitical games in our neighborhood.”’ (20)

The source for this is an interview with Barry Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US State Department, broadcast on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in 2000. Lowenkron is actually chairing the committee which is discussing the Lugar report and Radio Liberty (once owned by the CIA) is now, via the Soros’ Open Society Institute, which bought it in 1993 at the prompting of Karl Popper, (21) part of the ‘family’.

The Backlash Panel was: Barry Lowenkron (who appeared on his own), with a second panel of: Carl Gershman, President of the NED; Ambassador Mark Palmer, the current Vice Chairman of Freedom House; Morton Halperin, Director of U.S. Advocacy at the Open Society Institute; Thomas Carothers, Senior Associate and Director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What forces control this selection procedure or adjudicate it as representative, we can only guess at. In his opening remarks the NED’s president stated that:

‘The NED family in particular has extensive experience of channelling assistance to dissidents, labor unions, human rights activists, and other advocates for democratic change within repressive societies.’ (22)

This mafia can perceive the slightest subtlety of anti-democratic mendacity in far-flung Angola, but is incapable of turning the analysis round: what has US foreign policy persistently done in the past? Who says the CIA and the assortment of other intelligence organisations stopped what they were doing just because the NED was put in front of them as a fig leaf? Might these criticisms also apply to the Land of the Free? Casual observers might feel that the work of Kathleen Harris and Jeb Bush in illegally removing 57,700 voters from the voting rolls is being discussed below:

‘While the number of democracies is at a historic high, the overall picture is complicated by the emergence — and in some regions the prevalence — of semi-authoritarian or ‘hybrid regimes’ in which superficial democratic processes, including quasi-free elections, serve to disguise and help to legitimate continued authoritarianism. The number of these regimes has actually grown as a consequence of the third wave of democratisation, as democratic transitions have stalled and many countries entered a “political gray zone’ of illiberal democracy, and as the result of backsliding by former electoral democracies.’ (23)

It is quite disarming to hear the NED quote Marcuse to argue that some states bring ‘repressive tolerance’ to bear on civil ‘society groups’ letting them operate with a degree of autonomy but in a context of operational and political restrictions, including the threat of arbitrary interference or even dissolution. It is equally obtuse to read of Russian and Chinese leaders quoted in a slightly coded (i.e. unsourced) critique‚ of democracy assistance say that ‘concrete models of social development cannot be exported’ and that ‘the right of every people to its own path of development must be fully guaranteed.’ Abroad, of course — not at home. (24)

Into the Middle East

In his 2004 state of the Union address George W. Bush called for the doubling of the NED’s budget, from $40 million to $80 million, with virtually all of the new funding going to the Middle East and Iraq in particular. Even before Bush’s speech, the NED was already funding and setting up pro-US Iraqi organisations involved in polling, the media, civic education, and political party building. (25) Of Europe’s democracy assistance foundations, Germany’s party-based groups still account for the lion’s share of the combined annual budget with some €358 million from a combined annual budget of €400 million. Only seven foundations have an annual budget over €10 million and twelve get by on less than one million. (26)

Ultimately what these organisations represent is an expensive but precariously thin facade. The NED’s defence of its deeds are a classic example of George Orwell’s observation that political language is used largely in the defence of the indefensible.

Hugely wealthy endowments such as the NED gather together political and economic forces to impact upon what social researchers can say in respect of proposing policy solutions — and they seek to control even what is regarded as a policy solution. That so many supposedly independent researchers are part of the ‘family’ should not surprise us. In the US, the anti-democratic tendency goes hand in hand with the monopolistic or oligopolistic concentration of capital in the formation of ‘public opinion’. The chance of influencing this ‘majority’, in any effective way, is at a price, totally out of reach of the radical opposition. Here too, free competition and exchange of ideas have become a farce. The Left has no equal voice, no equal access to the mass media and their public facilities – not because a conspiracy excludes it, but because, in good old capitalist fashion, it does not have the required purchasing power.


1. FCO (2005) Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Working for a Freer World, WFD’s response to the River Path Associates Report. <>

2. National Endowment for Democracy (2006) The Backlash Against Democracy Assistance, a report prepared by the National Endowment for Democracy for Senator Richard G. Lugar, June 8.

3. Lowe D. (2003) Idea to Reality: NED at 20, The National Endowment for Democracy web site < html>

4. Blum W. (2000) Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, Maine: Common Courage Press.

5. Wersch J. v. & Zeeuw J. d. (2005) Mapping European Democracy Assistance, Tracing the Activities and Financial Flows of Political Foundations, Clingendael, The Netherlands Institute of International Relations, p. 16. See also: Schoofs S. & Zeeuw J. d. (2004) Lessons Learned in Political Party Assistance, Clingendael, The Netherlands Institute of International Relations. < 2005/20051200_cru_ working_paper_36.pdf>

6. Conry B. (1993) Loose Cannon: The National Endowment for Democracy, Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 27, November 8. <>

7. Cubitt C. (2006) Democracy promotion in Africa a panacea for conflict-torn societies? Paper for BSIA conference 18-20 December, p.6. <>

8. See: Crawford G. (2002) Evaluating democracy assistance: the inadequacy of numbers and the promise of participation. Combining qualitative and quantitative methods in development research, University of Wales, p.7. <>

9. Robinson M. (1996) Strengthening Civil Society Through Foreign Political Aid, (ESCOR Research Report R6234), Brighton: IDS.

10. Gordon Crawford, Conference, Seminar and Workshop Papers 1996 onwards <>

11. Casper, G. & Tufis C. (2004) Correlation vs. Interchangeability: The Limited Robustness of Empirical Findings on Democracy using Highly Correlated Datasets. Unpublished Paper presented at CSCW, Oslo, 26 May.

12. Michael Hershman was the co-founder of Transparency International and the chair of Decision Strategies/Fairfax International, now one of the biggest private investigation, security and business intelligence companies in the US. According to his biography he ‘began his career in intelligence and investigations in Europe during the late 1960’s as a Special Agent with U.S. Military Intelligence, specialising in counter-terrorism’. <>

On Transparency International see Julie Bajolle ‘The origins and motivations of the current emphasis on corruption’ < type=link&cat_id=0>

13. The Lugar Report (see note 2) p. 18.

14. A Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in the 50s, Lugar became an intelligence briefing officer on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. Honley S. A. (2005) A True Friend of the Foreign Service: Richard Lugar, Foreign Service Journal, June, p.3. < fsj/june05/ honley.pdf> Lugar informs us: ‘So I read the secrets of the nation at 2:30 in the morning and by 6:30 had put together a compre-hensive briefing of what had happened in terms of world intelligence. And very rapidly, my interest in strategic foreign policy grew, and not just from the standpoint of the Navy. I was dispatched to the White House to brief President Eisenhower and to the bowels of the Pentagon to meet with Allen Dulles as the Navy representative.’

15. The Lugar report (see note 2) p.16.

16. Lowenkron B.F. (2006) The Essential Role of Non-Governmental Organisations in the Development of Democracy, Remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Washington, DC June 8. <>

17. The Lugar report (see note 2) p.4.

18. Ibid. Wersch and Zeeuw (see note 5) listed 32 European organisations which stem from the NED into targeted political action committees.

19. The Lugar report (see note 2) p.9.

20. Ibid. p.8. This can also be found in reiterated form in: Democracy Digest, The Bulletin of the Transatlantic Democracy Network, March 31, 2006, Vol. 3, No. 1.

2<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–>. Popper’s influence on Soros was more than just some vague acquaintance as his old tutor at the LSE. In 1994, ‘after a meeting with his philosopher guru, Sir Karl Popper, Soros ordered his companies to start investing in central and eastern European communications.’ This included the take-over and funding of the CIA’s Radio Free Europe. See: Cottin H. (2002) Covert Action, No. 74, CovertAction publications Inc. <>

22. <>

23. The Lugar report (see note 2) p. 17. Note the reference to Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘third wave’ there, but the report does notice that there are dissenters from the line:

‘The association of democracy assistance with regime change is a position taken by honest, if impatient, advocates of democracy as well as by more malicious critics. This misleading equation has been taken up by authoritarian rulers to deny the legitimacy of democracy assistance and to portray these efforts as an instrument of foreign policy designed to undermine U.S. adversaries.’ (Ibid.)

24. Ibid.

25. Tarbell J. & Burbach R. (2004) The New Baghdad Triumvirate: Allawi, Negroponte and the NED, Bush’s Democratic Charade in Iraq, Counterpunch, June 9. < tarbell06092004.html>

26. Wersch J. v. & Zeeuw J. d. (see note 5)


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