Belgrad, Serbien.
Belgrad, Serbien.
Photo: Jiamin Huang

Aid can contribute to polarized views on democracy


EU democracy assistance is effective in promoting democracy, but in countries that also receive aid from authoritarian donors, support for democracy can decrease. At the same time, citizens are concerned that aid from authoritarian regimes can contribute to corruption and a lack of accountability among local politicians, a dissertation from the University of Gothenburg shows.

After the US, the EU is the world's largest aid donor. Part of the aid consists of democracy support which is directed directly to the democratic institutions of the recipient countries. This can include support for the implementation of free and fair elections, for example. Previous studies have been critical of whether the EU's democracy promotion efforts actually yield results. However, the dissertation shows that there is a positive correlation between EU democracy assistance and the level of democracy in a country.

"EU democracy assistance is more robustly associated with a country's levels of democracy compared to similar aid from other donors. Furthermore, democracy assistance has a greater impact on democratization processes compared to all other types of EU support, which do not seem to have a significant effect on democracy," says Adea Gafuri, a Ph.D. student in political science.

She has examined the effect of democracy promotion efforts in the 126 recipient countries eligible for EU democracy assistance during the period from 2002 to 2018. To measure levels of democracy, she uses data from the OECD's credit reporting system and an index from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem).

The dissertation shows that EU democracy assistance is effective when aid is linked to political conditions and monitoring mechanisms.

"EU doesn't just promise money. In most aid agreements they sign, there are conditions related to democracy and human rights that must be followed. They use incentives to make recipient countries comply with democratic reforms and have delegation offices that enable monitoring to ensure compliance with the agreements."

Challenges from authoritarian regimes

In recent times, the EU, US, OECD, and other traditional aid donors have been challenged by authoritarian regimes such as China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. China is one of the largest authoritarian aid donors globally. Emerging evidence is showing that these actors have different practices in recipient countries, compared to Western donors.

“In a world where 72 percent of the global population lives under authoritarian rule, it is important to know whether it matters for people's perception of democracy whether aid comes from democratic or authoritarian donors."

Adea Gafuri has examined these conditions in Serbia, a middle-income country in Europe that receives substantial foreign aid from both the EU and China. The country has applied for EU membership but has experienced a democratic setback since the right-wing nationalist President Aleksander Vucic took office in 2012. Since 2012, China has invested approximately $10 billion in Serbian projects in infrastructure, energy, finance, culture, and telecommunications. These investments have bolstered Serbia's economy, but the absence of political conditions, such as environmental considerations and fair labor conditions, has delayed its EU membership.

Support for democracy can decrease

Through survey data and data from the AidData database, Adea Gafuri has examined whether Chinese aid affects Serbians' perception of democracy. The study shows that, despite Serbia receiving a lot of assistance from the EU and other Western donors, support for democracy can decrease under certain circumstances.

"Among Serbian voters living in areas where the Chinese have invested in local projects, those who favor China are less likely to support democracy."

Similarly, politicians in Serbia can influence voter support for democracy.

“In Serbia, the political elite praises cooperation with authoritarian aid donors and the efficiency of their governance models. President Vucic emphasized in his 2021 election campaign that Chinese aid would be used to enhance the country's infrastructure. My study shows that support for democracy decreases among voters who share the political elite's positive attitude toward China.”

Not surprisingly, the study also shows that Serbians who support faster entry into the EU are more likely to support democracy and democratic reforms.

Donors influence attitudes toward local politicians

Adea Gafuri's dissertation also demonstrates that Serbia's cooperation with various aid donors, whether democratic or authoritarian, affects citizens' attitudes towards local politicians and their willingness to support various aid projects.

"Voters prefer their politicians to collaborate with the least authoritarian aid donors. This increases the likelihood of projects being carried out transparently and reduces the risks of corruption. Voters also believe there is a greater chance that local politicians will listen to them if authoritarian regimes are kept out. My findings about how aid from different actors influences Serbians' views on democracy can be applied to more middle-income countries," says Adea Gafuri.

Public defence

The public defence of the Doctoral Thesis will take place on Friday 22 September 2023. 

Title: Democratic versus Autocratic Donors: Does Aid Impact Democratization and Citizen’s Perceptions in Recipient Countries?