by Aytan Gahramanova, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University
International democracy promotion programs are grounded on the belief that democracy progresses in a linear fashion and that civil society is the primary engine of such a progression.
Consequently, aid strategies and the assessment of civil society in hybrid regimes are elaborated along the “strong-weak civil society” dichotomous scale, according to which civil society is considered in opposition to the state. Under such assumption, only one conclusion can be reached in the context of post-communist hybrid states: “civil society is weak”. Nevertheless, such conclusion misses nuances that would help us seeing alternative entry points for meaningful democracy assistance. Moreover, such a conclusion, together with other structural and broader political circumstances, led to the cut of democracy promotion schemes in “unsuccessful” host countries.
It follows that broadening our perspective on the function of civil society in the context of hybrid regime is needed. I propose to shift the focus from the goal of achieving regime change to that of nurturing the local discourse around public policies. In this perspective, local epistemic communities represented by individual experts, think tanks, and research institutions are the crucial actors that can nurture a discourse of public policy- making based on the notion of democratic accountability. My experience of over 10 years of work in international development aid in Azerbaijan suggests that the role of epistemic communities can be effective not only for voicing alternatives in public policy issues and for having a policy impact, but also for enhancing the legitimacy and weight of the civil society in the eyes of other social and political actors.
This perspective may have implications for EU democracy promotion policy in hybrid regimes, which should enhance the integration of local epistemic communities into the local public policy process as one of the approaches EU democracy promotion policy could focus on.
As the communist camp collapsed and Soviet Union dissolved, civil society enjoyed a great deal of attention from political scientists, who elected it as symbol of the opposition against totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and post-Soviet countries. At the same time, over the last 10 years, the scholarly community voiced disappointment with civil society accomplishments with regard to the process of democracy-building. The disappointment is perhaps connected to the high expectations placed upon civil society, considered as the main drive for democratization right after the collapse of the communist camp.
The problem was that the definition of civil society dominant among both policy-makers and scholars was the antithesis of totalitarianism. This notion suggested a zero-sum logic, by which the mere existence of civil society was considered sufficient for leading a country from authoritarianism to democracy, and it informed indicators and scale of assessment of civil society in authoritarian regimes.
However, rigid categories such as “weak” and “strong” civil society failed to lead to an understanding of how the interaction between authoritarian states and civil society works, which actors are involved, their roles, or how civil society actors can contribute to processes of democratization that are non-linear.
Existing assumptions that impact on current policies in this area:
The democratizing role of civil society is based on the normative assumption that this is strong, independent and capable of building a democratic state. This assumption originates from the idea that civil society and the state are independent from each other. This postulation is part of the so-called “transition to democracy” paradigm. Although international democracy promotion is less naive today because of the critique of this paradigm, donors still refer to it when it comes to impact assessment and setting targets. Therefore, it is important to refer to the “transition to democracy” paradigm below.
This paradigm presents civil society as constituting “the public sphere”, where democracy finds its source. It is based on the belief that transition to democracy takes place in a linear form, proceedeing through (1) political liberalization;( 2) transition; (3) democratic consolidation. It is also assumed that any country moving away from dictatorial rule will transit toward democracy. Such assumptions led to subsequent analysis and assessment of the domestic politics of a country in terms of its movement towards or away from liberal democracy, while contextual conditions (political and institutional legacies, sociocultural norms) remained overlooked.
Critics of the transition paradigm have already stated that the model is an extremely simplified, mechanical one, which hardly reflect the reality of country’s transitions and social process.
Furthermore, the paradigm dismissed the importance of public policy-making as seemingly non-relevant to the cause democratic transition as dominated by opaque state-led actors. On the contrary, policy-making is particularly important in heavily polarized societies or when the wider public is marginalized like in hybrid regimes, because it represents a venue for change where civil society can intervene. In this perspective, local epistemic communities represented by individual experts, think tanks, and research institutions are the main actors in public policy-making processes, and may promote not only evidence-based policies, but also values-based. By building institutional partnership, formal and informal social ties and networking, they may stimulate flow of information and ideas among various stakeholders even beyond policy-makers. Maintaining and supporting an active and dynamic community of think tanks seems to offer a promising alternative to promote democratic governance and sustainable development, going beyond linear perception of social processes.
I examine a single country, Azerbaijan, and collect data through in-depth semi-structured interviews, direct observation, and the analysis of primary and secondary written sources. Interviews include both interviews with main actors (leaders of think tanks, founders, relevant middle level officials), and focus groups (with the think tanks community).
Expected Key Research Findings:
While civil society has been continuously assessed against the expectation of driving democratization in the country, in reality, in hybrid regimes civil society was/is not in a position to serve neither as a political mechanism for controlling the state, nor as the protector of the public sphere.
International policy-makers need to broaden their perspective on civil society and see it not as an institution, constructed once and forever, but rather as a fluctuating process and forum where different participants play the role of maintaining a pluralistic discourse in the society – a function that needs to be nurtured. Supporting the integration of local epistemic communities into the public policy-making is a possible strategy to do so.
During the past decade in Azerbaijan, local not-for-profit think tanks were intensively engaged in public policy issues ranging from strengthening local self-governance to budget transparency. The participation of think tanks in the public discourse around policy-making stimulated the establishment of networks of local actors, advocacy campaigns, the publication of policy papers, discussions, and enhanced communication strategies and capacity building. These activities may not have a short-term effect, influencing a major policy, but will implicitly enhance the quality of the public discourse around public policies, nurturing the flow of information.
However, the role of local epistemic communities has largely been overlooked in the study of civil society. Partially, this is because the study of policy-making has been missing in current debate on civil society. There is remarkably little systematic work on how civil society organizations (CSO) use evidence and generally knowledge in an attempt to influence policy processes. Meanwhile, the gathering and use of evidences in public policy debates acquire a special role in the context of hybrid regimes and grant additional legitimacy to civil society. This is particularly important for societies where the broader public is excluded from public policy-making, since the government generally seeks to maintain its monopoly on it.
CSOs/think tanks can use knowledge in different ways to influence different parts of the policy process: agenda building; the formulation of policy; the implementation of policy; the monitoring and evaluation. Of course, the nature of the political context affects the ways in which local epistemic communities can use knowledge to stimulate a public discourse around policy-making. That is why, perhaps, the ultimate goal of impacting state policy should be the quality of issue raised and the production of an evidence-based discourse by the local epistemic community.
Implications for EU / European Policy Makers:
The complex nature of social processes calls upon scholars to give up mechanistic approaches, and excessive generalizations by measuring the unmeasurable.
I suggest changing approach, from an impact-oriented approach to a process-oriented approach. I argue that, in context of hybrid regimes, it is a discursive dimension of the function of civil society that acquires particular importance.
Implications for EU democracy promotion include maximizing the quality of the process through supporting the local public policy process to be more inclusive towards the local epistemic community.
That can be achieved by supporting the acquisition of the tools (advocacy and policy work, communication) and capacities by those CSOs/think tanks. Below are examples of meaningful actions:
- support alliance building in the host country
- enhance the technical skills of CSO to increase legitimacy of the organization as a professional entity;
- support CSO with evidence gathering tools, lessons sharing, recording institutional memory and accumulated knowledge.
- support the establishment of public policy mechanisms that ensure access to policymaking processes for CSOs.
- support communication, divulgating knowledge so that it is presented in an accessible and meaningful way
- support international networking across regional/international epistemic communities
Carothers (2002) The End of the Transition Paradigm. Journal of Democracy , Vol 13, Issue 1, pp 5-21, Available from http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Carothers-13-1.pdf
The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of CASPIAN or the universities affiliated to the project.