Tough questions from Alanna Shaikh

Alanna recently wrote a disquieting post about the worst story someone ever trusted her with in the field until now, implying that she just encountered something worse in the course of her work. It’s a disturbing read. At the end, Alanna asked a few questions, including the following.

Alanna: I want to know whether it’s useful to have the EU pull its funding from the country whose name I won’t mention or if it’s more effective to keep pushing small changes and hope they add up.

It’s probably not useful, unless the regime in power relied very, very heavily on foreign aid. And even then, if the regime can support itself through some combination of oil and gas exports, drugs, private sector corruption and organized crime, then it’s still probably not helpful.

Of course, if we’re talking about sanctions, that’s a bit different. Some quick thoughts on sanctions.

When Serbia under Milosevic was placed under sanctions, its crime networks benefited mightily while ordinary people suffered. That legacy continues to hinder development and democratization today. Much of Serbian civil society, people who opposed Milosevic, were also against the sanctions, because international isolation made their work more difficult as well. Eventually, Milosevic was overthrown  and turned over to the ICTY to stand trial, but only after running Serbia into the ground economically, shredding its social fabric, bloodying much of the region and drawing the wrath of NATO in the form of seventy-eight days of airstrikes. And Serbia in the nineties and early 2000s was a vastly more developed country with a stronger civil society than any of the Central Asian states have now. Sanctions are like aggressive chemotherapy in the international body politic. Even if they work, the collateral damage is staggering. I’m not categorically opposed to sanctions, but I think that they are more often than not poorly designed and enforced unethically. Iraq after the First Gulf War is a horrible example of this.

Alanna: I want to know if supporting democratic institutions actually leads to democracy.

Working in a governance development organization, I should have a better answer to this than, sometimes, when conditions are right, and when we’re lucky. Some quick and hopefully not entirely incoherent thoughts on democracy assistance.

What we know is that the impetus for democratic reform has to come from within if it’s going to lead to anything approaching liberal democracy. Democracy support is most effective in regimes that have just undergone a paradigm, whether it’s a full-blown people power revolution, the end of an armed conflict, or just a slightly less un-free election. In these instances, the new government is often full of people who didn’t plan beyond getting into office. They can be swayed in one direction or another, but the window of opportunity is small. If they can’t meet rising expectations and the citizenry starts getting restless, the new boss will start looking and acting a lot like the old boss. Democracy assistance to institutions can, in this case, help a new and tentatively pro-democracy government meet the expectations of the people, or at least not fail utterly. Where there is no indigenous pro-democracy movement and the democratic impulse is weak, where the regime in power has no qualms about using violence to destroy its opponents, or where current regime leaders have made it clear they won’t leave until they die or someone kills them, external assistance to institutions alone will not start the engine of democratization. However, that doesn’t mean that external assistance for things that improve the everyday lives of people, like the reform of social welfare and education ministries (generally seen as more technocratic than political) isn’t worthwhile.

I might come back to this in a few days. Right now, I have to finish packing. Tomorrow, I move to a new apartment.

7 thoughts on “Tough questions from Alanna Shaikh

  1. There have been examples of successful use of sanctions, e.g. in the case of the South-African and Rhodesian apartheid regimes. They seem to be most effective if targeted at the relevant decision makers, which is particularly hard to do. Arms embargoes, communications suspensions, and international criminal prosecution seem to be much more effective.

    Some reading for whenever you have time after your house move:
    – Marks, S. P. (1999). “Economic Sanctions as Human Rights Violations: Reconciling Political and Public Health Imperatives.” American Journal of Public Health 89(10): 1509-1513.
    – Sidel, V. W. (1999). “Can Sanctions Be Sanctioned?” American Journal of Public Health 89(10): 1497-1498.
    – Skidelsky, R. and E. Mortimer (2000). “Economic Sanctions as a Means to International Health.” Preventive diplomacy: stopping wars before they start. K. M. Cahill. New York, Routledge: 143-161.

  2. Travel bans. Folks hate stealing buckets of money and then being told they can’t go shopping in Monaco. Plus has zero effect on general population.

  3. Michael is spot-on with the causality problem.

    We conclude that sanctions “worked” in South Africa/Rhodesia because eventually, the regimes went away. But sanctions on Rhodesia began immediately on unilaterally-declared independence in 1966. It took a decade and a half for the system to collapse, after a civil war aided by the country’s neighbors that helped raise defense spending to nearly 50% of government GDP. This in a country where the ruling ethnic group was outnumbered 20-1 in the first place and thus required universal white male conscription at 16 (!).

    Sanctions on Rhodesia were considered legitimate by the international community, and they may have helped weaken the regime. On the other hand, there’s also the argument that the embargo strengthened certain industries like farming and manufacturing by protecting them from international competition.

    To determine effectiveness, you’d have to answer the question of whether the white government would have lasted significantly longer *without* the sanctions. Or like what if there were no sanctions initially and then they had been added in, say, the early 1970s, rather than having had them immediately? Would this have been more useful as a coercive method if it hadn’t been the default state of relations?

    So yeah, as everyone seems to conclude when they study that stuff, sanctions either work, don’t work, or somewhat work. And it depends on this, that, and the other thing.

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