As DemWorks first year draws to a close, NDI President Derek Mitchell has one final question for his predecessors, Brian Atwood and Ken Wollack. How, as an American organization, has NDI remained separate from the U.S. government, and how has the issue of democracy support evolved over time?
Derek Mitchell: Hello, my name is Derek Mitchell and I'm President of the National Democratic Institute.
In this very special DemWorks episode I'm honored to talk to two of the legends and deep founders of the democracy development business, Brian Atwood and Ken Wollock. They also happen to be my predecessors here at NDI. You had mentioned USAID, Brian, and the role of USAID at a certain point in Kenya, you said they sort of came into the story and at a certain point here.
Two part question - what is the role of U.S. government support for our work over the years and how have we navigated that issue of being an American organization and yet being and taking American and government money but being separate from the American government? I mean, Brian, you were the administrator at USAID after you were at NDI during the Clinton administration. How did you, how did you see them evolve in those days in your organization, evolved on the issue of democracy support work during that time?
Brian Atwood: Well, it was because development professionals are bureaucrats and they were very reluctant to get into what they call political activity. So, we had some convincing to do, we created an office of democracy promotion and the, the main argument that I used, and was also used at the World Bank was the issue of accountability. If you're going to have sustainable development you needed, you needed to have governments that would be accountable to the people first and foremost. And so we, we managed to get that through and then we started putting money into that operation and, and I think now NDI and other organizations like it get more money from AID than they do from the National Endowment for Democracy [NED]. Not to say that the NED money isn't really important because it isn't as much tied to U.S. government interests... it's more, you can use it more for experimentation than you can if you’re using AID money. But still it's, it's now everyone buys into the notion that if you're going to have sustainable development need to have democratic development as well, so.
DM: And back then it wasn’t just -
BA: It just wasn't... it was very, very controversial when NDI first took AID money to go to the Philippines. I think it was something like forty thousand dollars but over time they gained confidence in what we were doing, that we were going to do this in a professional way and, and so NDI was, has managed now, as you know gets a lot of money from USAID.
Ken Wollack: I've always believed that it's important to have pluralism in democracy support efforts overseas. I think there are those who have called for this to be much more coordinated but somebody once said that you don't want to create the “Central Committee for Pluralism” and so the idea that AID has gotten into this, the State Department, the Bureau, for democracy human rights and labor, the National Endowment for Democracy. I think that's good because each has a different personality and I think that they bring different things and NDI I think has benefited and the work that we do, along with our counterparts have benefited from their interest and engagement on this issue as well.
You raise a very, very good point about, you know, how we view ourselves. We operate, we operated as you do now, primarily on government money, not only the U.S. government, but foreign governments as well. And so... how can one claim to be a non-governmental organization when preponderance of, of your funding is from government? And I do think an important part of that is how funds do come to NDI and because donors, and particularly USAID, provides funding one of two ways, through grants and through contracts. Contracts are when the government runs the program, you are an agent to the governments, but it is a government-run program. Grants is when a government supports the work that is done by the organization and I think the two are very, they're both important and, and there are groups that take both but I think NDI, along with many of the other democracy organizations have always believed that it's more appropriate to receive grants and not contracts because it's hard to argue that you're a non-governmental organization when you are a direct agent for a government. So it's better when the government supports your programs with all the proper oversight and communication, but that provides the independence I think that is necessary to operate effectively on the ground and be seen as being independent from, from government. You know, we're working in places where there has been a paucity of institutions that are separate from the state and, sort of, we undermine those efforts if a foreign state is too engaged in directing and running these programs. It sends the wrong signal that civil society, and parties, and parliament's operate separately from, from the state.
DM: The problem is, often times, as much as we want to be seen as separate, doesn't matter what we do, we will be seen as an extension of the U.S. government or extension of the Democratic Party, if there's a Democratic president, and you, know, all those things kind of muddy the waters. I think there are some embassies, ambassadors who don't get it either and I had to just - I won't name names - but I had to set one straight by saying we are not an extension of this Embassy, we are doing our own thing.
KW: But the big difference is today, unlike 35 years ago, every ambassador has democracy and human rights as part of his or her portfolio.
DM: Let me just say to all listeners thank you for joining us. To learn more about NDI or to sign up for our monthly newsletter visit ndi.org. Please invite others to join the conversation about democracy by sharing the DemWorks podcasts
I'm Derek Mitchell and this has been DemWorks. Thank you for listening.