A Strategy for Democratic Renewal: Meeting the Challenges Ahead

The Board of Directors at the National Endowment for Democracy adopted the following five-year strategic plan in January 2020:

Executive summary

When the National Endowment for Democracy produced its first strategy document in 1992, democracy’s continued expansion appeared inexorable.  Nearly three decades later, after years of negative global trends that have been called the democratic recession, such optimism about democracy’s prospects seems profoundly unrealistic.

But the recession is being countered today by surprising democratic resilience.  Since the spring of 2018, when authoritarian regimes unexpectedly fell in Ethiopia, Armenia, and Malaysia, grassroots movements of protest against corruption and unaccountable autocratic governments have swept through many countries and regions.   In this new period, NED plans to focus on six urgent priorities:

Liberalizing Authoritarian Systems: In China, Russia, North Korea and other dictatorships in Latin America, the Middle East, Eurasia, Africa, and Asia, NED will continue to aid civil-society groups, independent journalists, and human-rights defenders, and to mobilize international support for activists exposed to repression and violence.  NED will also support investigative journalists and civil-society networks battling transnational kleptocracy, which is a pillar of modern authoritarianism.

Supporting Democratic Transitions: NED will provide urgently needed support to democrats in countries like Tunisia, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Armenia, Malaysia, and Sudan where popular uprisings against corrupt and abusive autocratic regimes have created the opportunity for democratic transitions. At the same time, NED will continue its efforts to help fragile emerging democracies struggling to deliver the improvements in governance and economic opportunity that citizens expect from democratic institutions.

Countering Malign Authoritarian Influence in the World: NED will counter the malign influence of states like China and Russia that are engaged in a global effort to undermine democratic norms and to manipulate educational and cultural institutions, media outlets, think tanks, and civic associations.  Many of the targeted countries are especially vulnerable because they lack the resources – media, think tanks, academic and governmental bodies – that can help them understand how the Chinese and Russian systems work internally and how they are seeking to project influence internationally.  NED will seek to close the knowledge and capacity gap by raising awareness about the multi-dimensional nature of authoritarian influence.

Competing with Authoritarians in the Arena of Technology and Information: The newest and most complex challenge is to win the battle over technology and information, which has become a critical arena of contestation between democracy and authoritarianism.  While authoritarian regimes are trying to use the Internet to subvert and defeat democracy, emerging forms of independent online media provide potent resources for democrats, enabling them to investigate abuses, counter illiberal narratives, and inform and organize citizens. NED’s support for underdog civil-society groups that use new technologies to challenge repressive state institutions will be critical in the period ahead.

Strengthening Unity among Democracies: The current democracy recession has made strengthening international democratic cooperation more important than ever before.  Authoritarian powers are cooperating to undermine democracy where it already exists, to prevent democratic breakthroughs, and to obstruct fragile democratic transitions.  NED and its institutes are building international coalitions for democracy in collaboration with partners around the world – in governments and parliaments; in civil society and political parties; in business associations and trade unions; and in democracy foundations, development agencies, and multilateral institutions.

Defending Democratic Values against Illiberalism and Intolerance: The norms and values of liberal democracy are being challenged today by an array of illiberal forces across the globe opposed to the values of civility, tolerance, pluralism, and mutual respect.  NED will support these values by mobilizing and strengthening the voices of leading activists and public intellectuals, as well as others who wield social influence, including bloggers, vloggers, artists and musicians, religious leaders, entrepreneurs, and online journalists.  Broad-based civic education and leadership development is also needed to nurture a new generation of civic leaders and engaged citizens.

NED will meet these challenges by marshaling and integrating in a coherent way the assets at its disposal to empower indigenous grassroots democratic groups around the world.   These assets include:

  • NED’s four core institutes, representing the two major political parties, business and labor;
  • Thousands of nongovernmental organizations across the globe that are supported by NED’s targeted and demand-driven small-grants program; and
  • NED’s own activities aimed at building networks of activists and institutions; organizing solidarity events and other initiatives to strengthen political support for frontline activists; and conducting cutting-edge scholarly research on the critical challenges facing democracy.

NED will also enhance the work of its strategic fund, established in 2016, to promote collaborative efforts across different regions and sectors by linking the most innovative and effective groups at the forefront of democratic struggle.  Towards this end, a new Strategic Cooperation Fund will build on initiatives already in progress, such as countering kleptocracy and disinformation, to incorporate new priorities and initiatives for collaborative engagement.

While democracy faces greater dangers than at any time since NED was established more than three decades ago, its continuing resilience shows that these dangers can be addressed and overcome.  With increased resources provided by the Congress, NED will expand its efforts to empower frontline democrats and amplify their voice and impact.

This is NED’s mission – to support the universal aspiration for freedom in a way that both advances America’s national interest and fulfills its highest political ideals.  Never has this mission been more important than it is today.

Download the Full Text of A Strategy for Democratic Renewal: Meeting the Challenges Ahead.