University of Pittsburgh
October 26, 2005

Vanderbilt, Pitt Research Finds U.S. Assistance for Democracy Building Works

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NASHVILLE—Devoting American dollars to democracy building in more than 100 foreign nations has resulted in significant increases in democratic governance around the globe, according to a new study by Vanderbilt University and Pitt professors. The study's findings were presented Oct. 27 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

"We found that when the United States spends money to promote democracy in foreign countries, it works," said Mitchell Seligson, Centennial Professor of Political Science and a fellow of the Center for the Americas at Vanderbilt. "Unlike all prior published research, our data set is based upon an exhaustive survey of the entire democracy portfolio of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) since the end of the Cold War."

Coprincipal investigators were Steve Finkel, professor and Daniel Wallace Chair in Pitt's Department of Policitical Science, and Anibal Pérez-Liñán, Pitt assistant professor of political science.

The study, titled "Effects of U.S. Foreign Assistance on Democracy Building: Results of a Cross-National Quantitative Study," also differs from most previous ones by covering virtually all nations eligible for foreign assistance, and it uses a sophisticated statistical model to draw its conclusions. Another difference is that this grant measured the specific impact of spending on democracy building, rather than the impact of all types of U.S. foreign assistance on increasing democracy, and also controlled for many other possible influences on the growth of democracy.

The quantitative study, which covers the entire post-Cold War period from 1990 through 2003, found USAID spending on its Democracy and Governance programs had a significant positive impact on democracy.

The study also found that the limited amounts of money spent produced only a limited impact on democratic growth. The team speculates that if more of the USAID portfolio had been spent on democracy, the impact could have been greater.

Researchers used data from Freedom House, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes democratic values as one of several measures of each country's level of democracy. They found that for every 10 million additional dollars of U.S. democracy assistance, a country is predicted to be one-quarter of a point higher on the Freedom House general democracy index, which ranges from two to 14.

Using another standard index for democracy measurement called Polity IV, researchers found that $10 million in democracy assistance raised its index by about four-tenths of a point. "The corresponding increase in the Polity IV model is about one-third of the 'otherwise normal' amount of yearly democratic growth," Seligson said.

Seligson noted that there would be even stronger impacts for heavily funded countries and weaker effects where less money was spent. However, the average country during the time period of the study received only $2.07 million per year for democracy assistance. The study also found that no other type of assistance – from the USAID or other sources —was shown to have any direct statistically significant impact. "We cannot find any measurable impact when other countries donate money for democracy, but the data from those other sources are difficult to verify for accuracy," he said.

Specific indicators used by researchers to determine the level of democracy in a particular country include: the effectiveness of legislatures, strength of the judiciary, rule of law, and whether or not there is a free press.

"Our results show that there is a real potential for USAID and other international donors to influence the democracy building process, but to fully realize that potential, the level of funding for democracy assistance would need to increase substantially over what it is right now," said Finkel.

"In addition, we find that democracy assistance continues to have effects some two to three years in the future, indicating that there is potential for cumulative impact of these kinds of programs," Pérez-Liñán said.

The only negative impact the study found for U.S. assistance for democracy building was in the area of human rights. Seligson said there are probable explanations for the correlation between U.S. foreign aid for human rights and reports of increased human rights violations. "It is quite possible that when the U.S. government gives money to foreign nongovernmental human rights organizations, it emboldens them to report or publicize the extent of human rights problems to a greater degree."

Another explanation could be that authoritarian regimes, when they see the international community putting pressure on them to ease up on human rights violations, react instead by increasing their efforts against the opposition. Seligson said there needs to be further research into the relationship between U.S. foreign assistance and human rights violations.

The grant was awarded by the Association Liaison Office for University Cooperation in Development, a consortium that includes the American Association of Universities and the American Council on Higher Education, and made in cooperation with USAID, the major contributor to democracy promotion worldwide.

The full study will be available Nov. 30 at