A Dangerous Pattern on Foreign Assistance

Bolivia's expulsion of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) this month is a troubling development on its own, but when viewed in the context of similar actions by other governments, it raises questions about the future of American foreign assistance in the face of authoritarianism.

Bolivian president Evo Morales linked his decision to an offhand comment in which Secretary of State John Kerry referred to Latin America as the United States' "backyard," but he also accused USAID of political meddling and "conspiring" against his government. Morales's discomfort with American assistance dates back many years. In 2009, USAID suspended most democracy programming in Bolivia at his insistence; now the agency's operations in the country are being shuttered completely.

This announcement comes on the heels of the expulsion of USAID from Russia in December, the forced closure of U.S. and European democracy organizations in the United Arab Emirates earlier in 2012, and the raids, office closures, and prosecutions aimed at five foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Freedom House, in Egypt in December 2011.

Morales calculated that his move would come with modest risk, and likeminded governments are no doubt paying attention. Many countries would prefer that the United States not fund democracy or human rights activities. But until recently, most have believed that it is an immutable aspect of American assistance. With a clear pattern emerging of countries shutting down U.S. assistance programs with little resistance and few consequences, one can only guess who might be next.

President Barack Obama stated in May 2011 that the U.S. commitment to upholding universal rights "is not a secondary interest," but a "top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools at our disposal."

Yet in case after case, America has shied away from these goals when pursuing them proves difficult or seems to compete with other interests. USAID's expulsion from Russia met with little indignation as the administration struggled to win the Kremlin's cooperation on issues like Syria. Washington renewed military aid to Egypt despite the NGO crackdown and other, more flagrant human rights abuses. And when faced with Morales's antagonism in Bolivia, U.S. officials focused on purely social and economic USAID programs in the country at the expense of democracy programming.

There is by now ample evidence to conclude that accommodating foreign leaders by minimizing democracy and human rights concerns has not been successful for U.S. policy. USAID has been kicked out, NGO staff are being prosecuted, restrictive NGO laws are being passed, and anti-American rhetoric continues to resound. And in some cases, the governments involved are considered strategic partners.

In light of these facts, Washington should reevaluate its strategy.

The United States provides around $50 billion in foreign assistance every year. Much of this money goes to alleviate hunger, combat disease, promote economic reforms, and strengthen infrastructure. Around $3 billion is spent annually on programs that support democratic institutions, rule of law, and human rights. The United States must make clear that democracy and human rights funding goes hand in hand with other forms of assistance. Foreign governments cannot expect to benefit from American aid in other areas, especially military aid, and remain hostile to U.S. democracy assistance and support for universal values. Perhaps more importantly, neither donor nor recipient should expect material assistance to be truly effective when basic governance problems -- such as corruption, pliant courts, political repression, and impunity -- are left unaddressed.

Many governments are wary of democracy aid because it is designed to foster independent institutions and civil society, rather than buttress entities under the control of incumbent national leaders. But the short-term interests of incumbents should not be confused with the long-term interests of their country, or of the United States. The tremendous value of independent structures becomes especially obvious in times of transition. In the case of Egypt, USAID agreed to grant the Mubarak government control over most democracy assistance in 2009, effectively shutting down many of those efforts. When the regime collapsed in the face of a popular uprising in 2011, the country was left with an array of dysfunctional and discredited institutions, and the United States was left to scramble for friendly partners and a viable path to stability.

Support for civil society, democratic institutions, and human rights should be elevated to a universal, and nonnegotiable, aspect of American foreign policy, and no government should get an exception. In countries that are outright hostile to democratic values, the administration should continue to raise these issues in bilateral meetings and public statements, and assist civil society through creative methods -- including offshore and multilateral initiatives, as has been done in cases such as Cuba, Ethiopia, and Egypt in the past.

Congress and the administration should work together to make specific and quantifiable progress on democracy and human rights matters a core condition for U.S. aid to authoritarian governments, as in places like Egypt, Sri Lanka, and Burma. And if the established goals are not met, the United States must follow through on the consequences.

Around the world, people look to the United States to lead the way in the protection and promotion of universal values. As it happens, doing so is also in America's strategic interest. It's time to put human rights and democracy at the top of the priority list.

This post originally appeared on Freedom House's Freedom at Issue blog.