Full Reflection Post


Engaging to Reform U.S. Democracy Promotion

Catherine Herrold

Background and Policy Setting

Catherine Herrold studies how local civic actors—including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), grassroots groups, and philanthropic foundations—promote economic development and democratic political reform. Her first book project examined how leaders of Egyptian NGOs and foundations understood the concept of “democracy” and promoted it in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. In 2020, Herrold published the book, Delta Democracy: Pathways to Incremental Civic Revolution and Beyond, which laid out Egyptian organizations’ democracy promotion strategies and drew lessons to provide concrete recommendations for the reform of U.S. democracy assistance. From 2020-2021, Herrold served as a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) International Affairs Fellow (IAF) at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where she helped to develop policies that would allow the Agency to adopt a more locally rooted approach to democracy promotion and economic development. She also consulted directly to USAID’s Center for Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance and to the Assistant to the Administrator for Policy, Planning, and Learning regarding recommended revisions to USAID’s democracy promotion strategy and tactics.

Challenges of the Engagement

Herrold faced significant ethical dilemmas in her policy engagement. The first surrounded the publication of her book. Her book drew attention to the covert democracy promotion strategies of Egyptian NGOs who theretofore had evaded the government’s watchful eye. If Egyptian government officials learned of this work, it might target these organizations, their leaders, and their broader political reform efforts. While Herrold anonymized all of her interviews, it is conceivable that a savvy government official could identify some of the organizations in her sample. Even if not, the government could revise laws and monitoring schemes to allow it to identify organizations’ democracy building work.

The second ethical dilemma is related to the first and involved her use of the term “democracy” to describe Egyptian NGOs’ political reform goals. While NGO leaders stressed that they were in fact promoting democracy, they also stressed that they did not use that term because it drew government attention and raised skepticism among local citizens that the organization was advancing Western agendas. Herrold chose to use the term “democracy” since she believed it would resonate most clearly with U.S. policy makers, however she recognized that this obscured Egyptians’ ambivalence about the term.

What Happened

The timeliness of her research, coupled with the fact that she earned her PhD in public policy studies, led Herrold to want to engage with policy makers. Prior research had identified several weaknesses of standard U.S. democracy promotion strategies: it focuses exclusively on procedural democracy, it is highly technical, it circulates among elite organizations and fails to reach or resonate with everyday citizens, and it is dangerous for organizations to accept.

Herrold found these same weaknesses, but her research also identified an alternative being used by Egyptian socioeconomic development NGOs and foundations—organizations that are typically not considered to be members of the democracy promotion establishment. Namely, these organizations promoted a participatory form of democracy that integrated economic and political reform efforts and directly targeted and engaged local citizens. NGOs created public spheres in which citizens discussed their challenges, debated priorities, and developed and implemented programs to improve their collective welfare. NGOs also promoted free expression by hosting arts and culture events in which people expressed their visions for the future of Egypt. Additionally, NGOs educated members about their rights as citizens and coached them to claim their rights from local government officials. It seemed to Herrold that this approach could inform the reforms to U.S. democracy assistance already called for by other scholars.

Herrold perceived two relevant policy windows that opened simultaneously. The first was the spate of civic revolutions for democratic political reform taking place not only in the Middle East but throughout the Global South (and indeed even in the U.S.). These uprisings showed that around the world, citizens were united in their demands for freedom, justice, and equality. While that policy window seems on the surface to have closed, as autocrats across the region recaptured power and doubled down on repressive tactics and as governments around the world used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to increase monitoring and surveillance of society, in fact citizen mobilization for change continues at grassroots levels. Collective efforts to improve society and enhance freedoms continue apace, despite government crackdowns and pandemic-related lockdowns.

The second window was growing pressure to localize foreign assistance. Activists working in the Global South have long been frustrated with the top-down approach to aid and were increasingly vocal. Their critiques and demands for reform were reaching major U.S. news outlets such as the New York Times, suggesting widespread resonance. Localization carries risks. Often, international donors that support local civil society lack a nuanced understanding of local power structures. Relying on the insights of foreign nationals who work in embassies and missions helps, but these individuals tend to be relatively elite members of society. Nonetheless, Herrold does recommend that the U.S. localize its democracy promotion strategy. The confluence of policy windows thus seemed to present an auspicious opportunity for policy engagement.

Herrold’s approach was to recommend changes to the U.S.’s existing, but outmoded, democracy promotion policy. She focused primarily at the tactical level, namely on the implementation of democracy assistance. Her research suggested that Egyptians did not want the U.S. to abandon democracy promotion, but rather that they wanted the U.S. to revise its assistance strategy to be more locally resonant, politically savvy, and presumably effective. Her recommendations urged the U.S. to expand its definition of “democracy” to more fully encompass all forms of civic participation, to engage a wider array of organizations beyond international NGOs and local advocacy NGOs, and to reform complex application and reporting requirements.

Herrold drew upon interpretive research methods to gather data and develop her policy recommendations. She spent nearly three years conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Egypt in order to understand local citizens’ own understandings of democracy and democracy promotion, and this allowed her to think creatively about possibilities for revisions to U.S. democracy promotion policies. It also allowed her to amplify the voices of local actors in U.S. policy debates—voices that are often drowned out by international NGOs, institutional contractors, and other elite organizations.

Implications of Policy Engagement

So far, Herrold is aware of no problems that have arisen as a result of her engagement. Policy interlocutors have been attuned to the sensitive nature of her topic and recognize that they must keep ethical concerns top of mind as they consider revisions to democracy assistance strategies. In addition, Egyptians and other Arabs who have read her work have expressed gratitude that Herrold is highlighting local democracy promotion strategies and using her position as an American policy-engaged scholar to urge the U.S. to reform its policies. Thus it seems that her initial dilemmas were less concerning that she anticipated. Still, in her current work Herrold is moving away from the term “democracy” because it often fails to fully resonate in the places where she works. The values of political freedom, social justice, and economic opportunity are more meaningful that then term “democracy.” Additionally, she remains very careful to protect her interlocutors both from the possibility of government repression and from the possibility of having their experiences and understandings inaccurately portrayed to Western audiences who already have misguided notions about many parts of the Global south.

The timeliness of Herrold’s recommendations has helped her to gain traction with policy makers. One of her key recommendations surrounds the localization of democracy assistance. Both the Trump Administration and the Biden Administration have supported the localization of foreign assistance, and when Herrold served as a CFR IAF in USAID she was invited to consult to senior staff of the Center for Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, and the Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning. Her recommendations were engaged thoughtfully and staff of both offices have followed up after Herrold’s fellowship concluded. So far, therefore, Herrold’s policy engagement seems to have been successful. However, as she continues to conduct policy-relevant, ethnographic research in the Global South she remains very attuned to the ethical complications of the engagement.

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Issue Areas

  • Corporate / NGO Engagement
  • DDR / Recovering from War
  • Digital / Cyber Space
  • Economic Issues
  • Environment / Climate
  • Health
  • Identity Politics
  • Military Issues
  • Policing
  • Power Politics
  • War / Civil War / Violent Actors

Type of Engagement

  • Arms length writing for policy audiences
  • Close collaboration with policymakers
  • Embedded work in policy organizations
  • Research ethics
  • Scholarly action with policy consequences
  • Writing for policy audiences with which the scholar is connected

Ethics of Engagement