Global democracy levels have been in decline over the last decade, with democracies facing a growing number of internal and external challenges. Democracy assistance must respond to these emerging challenges, such as closing democratic space, media capture, and rising authoritarianism. For this to happen, there needs to be better information on the resources for democracy support across the world. As part of the European Democracy Hub’s ongoing efforts to collect and analyse democracy support funding, our new European democracy support data tool offers an overview of such funding from European Union (EU) institutions and other European donors.

An initial analysis of the data points to a series of vital insights related to democracy funding that are important for policymakers, donors, and civil society actors. Some of these findings strengthen the evidence base for trends that are already known to the democracy support community, while others are new insights.

portrait of woman smiling.
Evelyn Mantoiu

Democracy support funding emerges as having been fairly consistent across the period studied, 2014–2020, suggesting that current challenges to democracy are not yet having a material impact on funding levels. Support for civil society and for justice and the rule of law drew the most attention from donors, while funding in areas such as media support and political inclusion increased. Much less was spent on support for political parties and parliamentary strengthening. Most democracy support funding was delivered through project-based interventions, which raises questions about funding flexibility and sustainability.

Democracy support funding data

The tool uses data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD’s) Creditor Reporting System, which covers the period 2014–2020, with a focus on official development assistance (ODA) disbursements for government and civil society provided by European donors. The tool captures support from 28 donors, including EU institutions, EU member states, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK. We recategorised the data to identify core democracy support funding for selected categories from the sector “Government and Civil Society, general”. This means that we filtered out funding that we do not consider to have democracy support as its main focus. This funding may have an impact on democracy and should not be discounted completely, but our model provides a much tighter assessment of actual funding for democracy in practice.

We define core democracy as those areas of democracy assistance that strengthen democratic infrastructure in a given context. In practice, this refers to 12 distinct categories: civil and political rights, civil society support, civic and political education, electoral assistance, election observation and follow-up missions, justice and the rule of law, media support, parliamentary strengthening, political participation, political-party support, political inclusion, and transparency and anticorruption. There is further information on the methodology and the limitations of the recategorisation exercise on the data tool website.

The data can be accessed and explored online interactively. There are two ways of visualising the data: by looking at either spending flows (categories) or a spending map (countries). The tool allows users to explore different donor or recipient profiles, which provide information on the top spending categories, where funding came from and where it went, how support varied across 2014–2020, and how it was delivered. The tool is a prototype and uses data up to 2020 because of the time lag of donor reporting in the OECD system. As the policy environment has changed significantly since 2020, this cut-off point does limit our analysis. Future iterations will expand on the selection of available years.

Six key insights

Once disaggregated to show core funding, the data reveals some interesting trends. Some of these trends have been speculated on for years by those working on democracy support, and our data provides evidence to back up these claims. Other insights are new and emerge from this novel way of looking at democracy support. Six key insights stand out.

The stability of democracy aid

First of all, while democracy is under threat, democracy assistance is not – yet. There is a relatively consistent aid flow for core democracy support, which could be interpreted in different ways. A positive spin would note that this aid is being delivered at relatively similar levels despite significant downward pressure on overall development aid in Europe. A negative interpretation would underline that while democracy is increasingly challenged worldwide, the funding has not reacted or caught up to the threat. Funding did not grow significantly through 2014–2020, and on average, about $4 billion was spent on core democracy support each year.

The data clearly shows that European donors have a long-standing commitment to democracy support. Our dataset indicates that the EU institutions, Germany, Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, and Norway emerge as strong promoters of such support (see figure 1). If we consider the amount of ODA some countries provide, some donors appear to spend a lot less than expected on core democracy support. This is particularly the case for France and Italy, which fall short in the list of top democracy donors despite being strong ODA providers.

Several other states, like Malta, Latvia, and Lithuania, provide minimal amounts of democracy support, primarily because their overall ODA spending is small. It is clear that for several European countries, core democracy support is not a priority, with donors focusing their efforts in sectors other than those considered for this analysis.

Figure 1: Donors’ core democracy support funding, 2014–2020

Our data shows that aid fluctuations over the period studied were quite small. Despite debates about a dwindling appetite for democracy support, the data shows that core support, while not high compared with overall aid sums, has amassed a group of dedicated donors. There appears to have been a small upward trend in spending until 2019, followed by a slight fall (see figure 2). It is possible that this dip is a result of the Covid-19 pandemic disrupting aid trends, masking a continuous minor upward trend in democracy support, but this is only speculative. An update to our dataset later this year will provide further evidence on trends.

Figure 2: Total core democracy support funding from European donors, 2014–2020

To put these figures into perspective, overall European support – from national donors plus EU institutions – in the form of ODA grants for all sectors was approximately $75 billion a year in 2014–2020, based on estimates using the OECD Data Explorer. Of this, the overall support to the government and civil society sector, which is often used as a proxy for democracy support, was around $11 billion in ODA grants, or 15% of the total. Our recategorisation finds that on average, less than half of this – around $4 billion – was core democracy support. As a proportion of overall development assistance, democracy support was at most 5.3% on average each year. Such support clearly lagged behind other policy priorities, such as climate finance, which received €23.2 billion ($25 billion) in 2019 from the EU institutions, its 27 member states, and the UK. When compared with military spending, democracy support is even smaller: in 2019 alone, EU member states spent over €186 billion ($200 billion) on defence.

Foreign policy priorities and democracy funding

Our data does not suggest that strategic foreign policy priorities steer the allocation of democracy funding. One might expect European donors to prioritise democracy in the EU’s neighbourhood or in places where there have been democratic openings, but the data does not point in that direction. In terms of major strategic priorities for European donors, one might also expect Russia and, to a lesser extent, China to feature more prominently in the data.

At the same time, bilateral relations between donors and recipients clearly play a part in who receives the most core democracy support, as country allocations are often based not only on needs but also on interests. Indeed, a mix of historical ties and geopolitics often influences who receives core democracy support. For example, EU institutions tend to provide funding for countries in the union’s neighbourhood, while former colonial powers support states in their spheres of interest, echoing their ODA spending trends.

However, overall, while one might expect democracy aid to be highest in places where democratic breakthroughs offer the most opportunity, or certain types of aid to be increased where backsliding is most pronounced, the figures do not suggest this. A possible explanation is that such projects are sensitive and donors try to minimise the amount of information available about them in order not to cause harm. Recording funding as “bilateral, unspecified” or building broader regional initiatives can be ways to provide assistance in a repressive environment without indicating the recipient country.

Country allocations of democracy support

One striking finding is that the top recipients of country-based democracy support were also top receivers of development assistance. This suggests that donors are basing their funding decisions not on democratic indicators but on their development aid budgets.

Among the top country recipients of core democracy support in 2014–2020 were Afghanistan, Kosovo, Nigeria, Uganda, Ukraine, Myanmar, and the West Bank and Gaza (see figure 3). Most of these countries and territories were also leading recipients of development assistance: for example, Afghanistan was the top net aid receiver in 2014. Of these recipients, Afghanistan, Uganda, the West Bank and Gaza, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Nigeria are classified as fragile contexts and have attracted significant donor interest. This may mean that other priorities, such as conflict resolution, are driving funding decisions towards certain countries and that high democracy support spending is actually a by-product of such decisions.

Figure 3: The top 20 core democracy recipients, 2014–2020

This trend does not mean that democracy is absent as a factor in democracy spending levels. Our data shows that democracy can be front and centre in certain instances, with changes in states’ political fortunes driving funding decisions. In recent years, a resurgence of autocratic forces in Afghanistan and Myanmar has meant that fewer resources for core democracy support are now dedicated to these countries, as the focus has shifted to providing humanitarian aid or helping communities in exile.

Generally, our data does show that key events often lead to increases in core democracy support going towards country recipients, particularly when it comes to elections – that is, electoral assistance and election observation and follow-up. In the coming years, the European Democracy Hub will analyse these fluctuations in more detail.

Top categories

Certain core democracy support categories, such as support for civil society organisations (CSOs) and justice and the rule of law, are well established areas that attract ample donor interest. Civil society support received over $800 million a year, on average, in 2014–2020, while justice and the rule of law received an average of over $400 million each year. These are important categories for democracy, as they enable the creation of checks and balances and can help respond to democratic erosion. These categories are also common among donors that do not necessarily have large yearly budgets for democracy support, such as Central and Eastern European countries, or those that have not historically provided democracy assistance. In some of these cases, such support is delivered through technical assistance, as opposed to core contributions to the sector.

Overall, civic space seems to be a priority among donors because of the threats to civil society. With the shrinking of civic space, civil society is often the target of antidemocratic forces across the world. As such, the democracy support community has recognised backing civil society as a means of combating and tackling this phenomenon.

Our data shows that parliamentary strengthening and political-party support still get little attention from donors. Parliamentary strengthening did not receive a significant increase in funding across the period studied but remained at fairly low levels in comparison with the other categories. With regard to the extremely low level of funding for political-party support, it is important to note that this could be the result of a lack of quality data, as information on the financing of political parties can be difficult to measure because of the sensitivity of the sector.

Political-party support can be viewed as interference by European governments in the domestic politics of other countries, which is why fewer donors focus on this category. The operational interaction among the different actors in party assistance may also contribute to the low figures. Depending on who the assistance providers are, funding can be categorised as civil society support when it is provided as core or operational funding to certain organisations. These actors then implement party support programmes, with only a certain percentage of their budget dedicated to political-party support.

Civic and political education is another category that does not attract a lot of support from donors. A possible explanation is that education is a competency left to national governments and incorporated into school curriculums, as opposed to programmes carried out by democracy support organisations. Additionally, some elements of civic and political education are included in voter education, which is sometimes carried out in the context of electoral assistance. Nevertheless, given that civic education is often touted as a key mechanism for facing the contemporary challenges to democracy – for instance by improving media literacy or promoting civic values in young citizens – the low levels of funding are still surprising.

New categories rising in importance

Policy developments at the national and European levels have resulted in some core democracy categories drawing more attention from donors. Media support for country or regional recipients registered the biggest change for such a category, going from $265 million in 2014 to $494 million in 2020. Political inclusion also recorded a significant increase, from $319 million to $443 million (see figures 4 and 5). These amounts are higher if bilateral funding for supporting activities is included in these categories.

Figure 4: European donors’ core democracy support funding, 2014

Figure 5: European donors’ core democracy support funding, 2020

Behind these increases are changes in donors’ policies and the policy landscape more broadly. Developments such as the implementation of a feminist foreign policy in several European countries and the EU’s Gender Action Plan have put a greater focus on women’s political representation. The increase over time of political inclusion as a core category for democracy support can be attributed to such developments, alongside a recognition of the importance of including under-represented groups, such as minorities and youth, in political decision-making.

Autocratisation and its effects on civic space have shed light on the importance of free and independent media. As such, media support has been gaining attention as a category of core democracy support, with some donors, such as the UK, Denmark, and the Netherlands, making this a visible policy commitment. This is also the case at the EU level, where free and independent media have featured as a policy priority in Europe and beyond. However, while support for this area has increased, so too has demand, as the challenges are exacerbated by the advance of digitisation and the need for alternative business models that can ensure the sustainability of free media.

Project-based support

Our data shows that European donors delivered core democracy support predominantly through project-based interventions. For example, in 2020, over 50% of donor support took this form, and less than 20% was delivered through core funds to nongovernmental organisations.

In practice, this means that most aid is distributed through projects that typically last between two and four years; occasionally, donor agencies commit to multiyear programmes, but within the boundaries of budget cycles. Project-based funding has the benefit of clear guidelines for action but suffers from multiple problems for those who implement democracy support projects. Generally, these problems include less flexibility, less long-term assurance, less administrative support, and no real sense of an interest-based partnership with donors. While such funding is surely welcome, research has shown that the challenges are well known and observable in different contexts.

This approach means civil society actors perform a dual role as both implementers of democracy support projects and recipients of aid. Applying for funding is competitive, and CSOs often find it particularly challenging to comply with all donor requirements and cumbersome application processes. Smaller CSOs, such as grassroots organisations, often do not have a dedicated team to oversee the administrative burden of such applications. In this case, some donors opt to support multiannual programmes with larger organisations that can regrant funds, whereby the larger bodies act as intermediaries between the donors and the smaller organisations. This practice, which shifts the burden of project evaluation, oversight, and reporting from donors onto larger CSOs, has become increasingly popular.

With a need for greater flexibility and adaptability, it will be interesting to see whether donors move towards reducing project-based interventions for democracy assistance in the future. Our data does not show any such change in the political economy of development policy, but there are growing calls for this to be a big priority given the challenges facing democratic politics around the world.

Conclusion

A key contribution of our data tool is that it provides new and specific data on actual democracy support spending. This offers a means with which to start engaging in more informed debates about the state of democracy support. The tool also sharpens the definition of such support, allowing for comparisons between donors using a common framework, which, by extension, should also help the wider research community and inform policymaking.

The six key insights show that there is still significant room for improvement when it comes to democracy assistance. While spending remains at a fairly constant level, with a few dedicated donors, it has not gained momentum among the broader European community, and changes in the policies of the top donors could leave democracy support under serious pressure. On a positive note, funding has been adapting to respond to new challenges, as indicated by the shifts in specific spending categories. Civil society support continues to be a predominant category of core democracy support, closely followed by justice and the rule of law. Media support, political inclusion, and political participation are gaining interest.

New commitments to democracy support have been made since 2020 by European donors, some of which have announced an increase in democracy funding. The next steps are to understand and investigate whether and to what extent donors have responded to episodes of democratisation and autocratisation in recent years.

Author

Evelyn Mantoiu is a Research and Data Officer at the European Partnership for Democracy, where she investigates European democracy support policies. Evelyn has a BA in International Relations and Politics and an MSc in Democracy and Comparative Politics.