Little is known–although much is believed–about the impact of democracy assistance on institutional development in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, carried out on a transnational level by Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with local political and social activists. A recently completed three year study at Columbia University was designed to address this gap. Its findings–that the impact has been decidedly mixed and that NGO strategies should be driven more by local context–are likely to rankle both supporters and critics of democracy assistance who have portrayed assistance as either overwhelmingly successful or largely irrelevant. Instead, the results of democracy assistance to the formerly communist states has been something in between.
The Columbia study points to the power and the limits of Western assistance. Instead of bloated budgets and ineffectiveness, the return for the relatively small investment has to date been noteworthy. As pundits engage in the "who lost Russia" debate at the same time that they await parliamentary and presidential elections, it should be noted that the ratio of economic assistance dollars to democracy assistance dollars was at one time as high as 8:1.
In brief, the study finds that if NGOs make important and significant adjustments to their approach to assistance, including paying systematic attention to local context, we can expect greater impact. If NGOs are unwilling to make changes, then their impact will be random and rare. Most important, those activists in Eastern Europe and Eurasia who support the development of democratic institutions will become increasingly marginalized.
Since the process of transition across the regions of Eastern Europe and Eurasia is so critical to peace and stability in Western Europe and the United States, the Columbia study recommends that policymakers place great importance on the critical evaluation of democracy assistance and create incentives–such as adequate funding–for NGOs that comply with specific recommendations. […]