In some remote corners of the world, a quiet push for democracy is going on that most Americans never hear about. In June, a US organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), organized a conference of 16 small nations that have, in the last decade or so, begun to adopt democratic practices. The conference, held in Sana, Yemen, brought together representatives of these countries to share experiences and ideas, and reinforce a common determination to transform their societies.
That transformation can't happen quickly. It needs a sustained, long-term effort, as the more than 200 participants recognized. But to the handful of American observers, these countries have already accomplished a great deal.
Look at Yemen, the conference host. It has had two parliamentary elections (1993 and 1997) involving millions of enthusiastic voters - including women - and many political parties. Newspapers representing dozens of contrasting views, some harshly critical of the government, appear regularly. Private organizations abound, operating unhindered. None of these democratic features existed a decade ago. Other small countries have had similar experiences, equally unknown outside.
Why haven't Americans paid attention to the emergence of democracy abroad, except perhaps in Eastern Europe? First, all of these countries are small and poor. Most Americans know nothing about Benin, Mali, Malawi, Ghana, Mozambique, and Mongolia. Second, they aren't in crisis or making trouble for their neighbors, so they don't attract attention. Third, they have no oil or other important natural resources, and very limited military strength, so they rarely come up in Washington policy deliberations. Yet, Americans should know something about the emergence of democracies in many places. Democracy is probably more likely than a dictatorship to explode in a sudden upheaval that would potentially cause international problems, perhaps requiring US intervention. Democratic regimes, also, are more likely to see eye to eye with America on basic issues of concern. Americans tend to take democracy for granted, but the few of us who were observers at the Sana conference were reminded about some of its basic principles. Third world delegates stressed that free elections aren't sufficient to make a democracy, but other things are needed: free speech, a free press, independent judges, the right to organize private groups, and the full participation of women in political life. They emphasized that governments must be free of corruption, and official acts open to public scrutiny. One politician from central Asia pointed out that because corruption is usually hidden, it is more difficult to combat than street crime. A Moroccan speaker argued that true democracy requires at least one peaceful transfer of national leadership to the opposition party. A Ghanaian speaker asserted that the third world should follow America's example and have weak political parties rather than the European model of strong parties, which, he said, distorts the public's will at election time.
Complicating the transformation to democracy, they explained, is their struggle to promote economic development. Energizing the economy often requires belt-tightening measures, which are likely also to be demanded by organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank as a condition of loans. But the people who suffer from belt-tightening can use the new democratic tools of free press and elections to put pressure on governments to resist such measures. Thus, Sana delegates appealed to the US and others for help in easing the economic burden. A US banker urged delegates to create incentives for foreign investments; the Namibian prime minister admitted that made sense. But these countries also need outside help, at least temporarily.
Poor countries such as Yemen, struggling to democratize while privatizing and rationalizing their economies, do deserve US attention and aid in this crucial transition phase. The amounts of money that can make a difference - only tens of millions of dollars- are very modest compared with what the US spends on weapons. For America, this would be a very worthwhile investment. It is in the national interest to support these transitions.
*William A. Rugh, who served as the US ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, is president of America-Mideast Educational and Training Services Inc. in Washington, D.C.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society