Democracy, Rights and Governance

FY2017 Funding Recommendation:  
$3.025 billion


Funding History


       President's FY2017 Request   

       InterAction's FY2017 Recommendation

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 Key Facts

“It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prudential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our plans and programs, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.”

-Pope Francis before the UN General Assembly, September 2015

Freedom around the globe has been in decline for a decade. Many countries struggle to consolidate democratic gains and are vulnerable to economic and political deterioration due to weak governance institutions, lack of rule of law, corruption, and inequality. Democratic backsliding in these places risks dire consequences. Several countries maintain the outward appearance of democracy; meanwhile, their leaders restrict freedoms of association and expression, thereby closing the space for an independent civil society. Governments are increasingly imposing more legal restrictions and administrative hurdles for both domestic and international organizations to operate. Election management bodies lack the technical expertise to realize citizens’ rights to have a voice and vote. In addition, there are growing efforts to limit access to information and independent media, and to label and criminalize rights defenders and democracy promoters as foreign agents.

Government investments in democracy, rights, and governance (DRG) expand the space for a vibrant civil society and independent media; strengthen political and government institutions to be responsive to citizens’ needs; promote transparency and accountability; strengthen the rule of law; foster equitable economic growth; promote tolerance and inclusiveness; protect human and labor rights; and support free and fair elections.

However, as the need for more DRG programming has increased in recent years, U.S. government resources to support such programs has declined. The DRG community commends Congress for language in the FY2016 spending bill specifying that the administration spend no less than $2.3 billion on DRG programming. This is a necessary step, as the U.S. government’s reprogramming of money to fund other initiatives often adversely affects DRG programing. For example, actual spending on all DRG programming was only $2.087 billion for FY2014 – 27% less than Congress desired. The full funding of DRG programs is necessary to properly address democratic backsliding, to consolidate gains from economic development efforts, and to contribute to a more stable and prosperous world. 

Within its total DRG funding recommendation, InterAction has specific funding recommendations for DRG programs for five accounts:

Development Assistance:  $446.9 million

Development Assistance funds help further USAID’s goal of promoting resilient, democratic societies as part of its longer-term development programs. DRG assistance supports new and fragile democracies, in particular by helping them develop policies and practices to build effective, transparent, and accountable governments that can deliver political and socioeconomic benefits to their citizens. For example:

  • To support and defend the freedoms of association, assembly, expression, and information, as well as other human rights necessary for the functioning of a vibrant civil society worldwide, programs provide technical assistance to help in-country partners enhance their capacity on civil society law and to undertake research on cutting-edge legal issues that affect civil society. 
  • To counter political violence in Guatemala, USAID programs provided electoral risk mapping tools; technical assistance to improve interinstitutional coordination among electoral security stakeholders; analysis and support in the implementation of electoral dispute resolution mechanisms; trainings for electoral officials to increase conflict resolution skills; and a civic education campaign promoting a transparent, peaceful and tolerant electoral process.

InterAction supports a robust increase in DA funding for Democracy, Rights, and Governance, particularly to support free and fair elections, protect freedom of association, promote economic growth and the rule of law, and enhance citizen participation. 

Economic Support Funds:  $1.825 billion

Economic Support Funds (ESF) further the Department of State’s and USAID’s goal of helping countries meet short- and long-term political and economic needs so that they are able to transition to developed economies. Programs address the economic despair and lack of political participation that violent extremist groups exploit among youth, the unemployed, and marginalized members of society. DRG assistance empowers citizens to ensure broad-based participation; strengthens the rule of law; mitigates conflict; cultivates respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; promotes credible elections; and fosters economic growth. For example: 

  • In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ESF programming continues to provide the community 53 media outlets in 12 provinces and support to journalists as they prepare for the 2016-2017 local and national election cycle. U.S. assistance works to build the capacity of targeted media outlets and associations to provide reliable, objective news and information that contributes to stronger civic participation, and advances media freedoms and democratic governance. Programming also supports local advocates and civil society to press for reform and advocate for stronger open access to information and the media laws.
  • To promote inclusive dialogue among stakeholders in Ukraine, USAID programs supported the establishment of an Election Reform Group that has united civil society organizations and strengthened their influence in policy debates. Members of the Election Reform Group have developed joint proposals and advocated specific reforms of election-related legislation, including laws governing different kinds of elections, political finance, and voter bribery.

InterAction supports a robust increase in ESF funding for Democracy, Rights, and Governance, particularly to help address the alienation of youth and the unemployed who are targeted by violent extremism, increase rule of law, build local capacity to conduct credible elections, strengthen civil society, and promote economic growth.

National Endowment for Democracy:  $170 million

As a nonprofit grant-making organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) supports the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions – political parties, trade unions, and business organizations – and civil society. Its nongovernmental stature enables it to support democracy and rights work in some of the world’s most difficult environments, both through its four core institutes and with direct funding to local organizations. Examples include:

  • To improve access to justice for vulnerable rural populations in Turkmenistan, the NED pushed for the establishment of legal aid centers that provide hotline and in-person pro bono legal consultations to women and men of all ages on civil and family law issues, help them to acquire social benefits, secure child support and custody, file domestic violence charges, understand workers’ rights, and start their own businesses.
  • To reduce corruption in Thailand, a partnership with the Institute of Directors (IOD) in Thailand developed an antibribery initiative in which businesses pledge not to pay or accept bribes. The initiative, known as the Private Sector Collective Action Coalition Against Corruption, works with member businesses to assist them in instituting the necessary policies, procedures, monitoring, and compliance mechanisms to enable them to enforce their anti-bribery stance across their operations.

Increased funding for the NED would support the strengthening of democratic institutions around the world.

Democracy Fund:  $150.5 million

Through the Democracy Fund, the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance are able to support cross-cutting programs to support democracy activists worldwide, minimize human rights abuses, including human trafficking, open political space, and enable positive transnational change. For example: 

  • To improve workplace safety conditions, programs in Bangladesh have worked to empower thousands of garment workers in factories to use collective voice as a tool to engage management on occupational, safety, health issues, and the enforcement of minimum work and pay standards in accordance with Bangladeshi law and international standards.
  • To deliver crucial information to voters in Cambodia, USAID programming provided for the development of an interactive voice response system to provide information to voters. This system received 645,166 calls during the 2013 election period. Programming also aided in the development of the Women’s Leadership Program, which trained 490 women from 14 provinces to build their leadership capacity in elections.

Increased funding for the Democracy Fund would enable both a more rapid response to changing political situations and human rights abuses, and the continued support of regional approaches to migration and combat trafficking in persons.

International Narcotics and Law Enforcement: $415.38 million.

Rampant corruption and weak justice systems are often barriers to sustainable development; they inhibit the development of democratic institutions, human rights, and governance capability. International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) funds provide partner countries with resources to improve rule of law and enable good governance. The U.S. Department of State, often in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice and other U.S. agencies, as part of its INCLE mission, supports the development of effective criminal justice systems and combats corruption that prevents development. INCLE funding helps build transparent and accountable government and civil society institutions, combats gender-based violence and hate crimes, and aids survivors, among many other areas of assistance. For example:

  • In Mexico, INCLE funds support institutionalizing the rule of law. U.S. assistance provides for exchanges between U.S. and Mexican criminal justice workers. This allows participants to share best practices between nations. INCLE funds also reinforce civil society participation; using these funds, the U.S. government works with their Mexican counterparts to strengthen the Mexican Bar Association that oversees judicial standards and the accreditation of lawyers and justice workers.

Success Story

Partnering with Myanmar’s Civil Society to Build Democracy

Myanmar’s November 2015 general elections – in which the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won 77% of seats – have been hailed as a historic moment for democracy, and exemplified how empowered civil society organizations (CSOs) can help spark tangible change.

Since 2012, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), supported by USAID and several international donors, has partnered with 17 CSOs throughout Myanmar to prepare for the 2015 elections and strengthen electoral and democratic processes. These partnerships have addressed many important political and human rights issues, such as access for persons with disabilities, women and youth empowerment, and civic and voter education:

  • Disability Rights. Since 2013, IFES has worked with the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative (MILI) to promote the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities in areas such as elections, business, education, and employment. Ahead of the 2015 elections, MILI ran two programs to promote the electoral rights of persons with disabilities and provide capacity building and training for other disabled person’s organizations. MILI also developed a how-to-vote guidebook for persons with disabilities, broadcasted voter education programs on Myanmar radio and television in sign language, organized a multiday, mobile get-out-the-vote concert, and helped train 220 election officials on accessible polling procedures as part of the Union Election Commission’s (UEC) poll-worker cascade training program.
  • Women’s Empowerment. The She Leads program, implemented by local partner Yaung Chi Thit in 17 locations across 14 states and regions, provides women with knowledge of the electoral process, develops leadership skills and emphasizes the important role that women play in the political process. The program reached over 500 women, and six of the participants went on to run as candidates. In July 2015, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie met with young women participating in the program.
  • Youth Engagement and Voter Education. For many in Myanmar, the November 8, 2015 elections were their first opportunity to vote, and many citizens were unaware of basic electoral procedures. This was particularly true among the youth. IFES partnered with the Pandita Development Institute (PDI) to conduct a Facebook voter education campaign that was widely visited in the lead up to election day. For example, a PDI voter education album posted on November 1 reached 348,555 people, receiving nearly 45,000 likes. In a country with one of the lowest levels of Internet penetration in the world, PDI’s social media voter education efforts reached a remarkable proportion of users.

While impressive in its own right, this is but a snapshot of Myanmar civil society’s contribution to the success of the elections. Myanmar’s civil society helped many of the country’s citizens have a voice in how they are governed for the first time. From addressing anti-Muslim sentiment to the array of development issues Myanmar faces in the years ahead, civil society will continue to play a vital role in cultivating a more pluralistic, open society and be Myanmar’s oxygen for democracy.

Photo: International Foundation for Electoral Systems


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