Testimony to Canadian Parliament by NED President Carl Gershman

To the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of the House of Commons of Canada

Thank you, Chairman Levitt, for inviting me to testify this morning before your Committee.  I applaud the fact that you are initiating a study of Canada’s role in supporting democratic development around the world.  I have long believed that Canada has a critically important role to play in this field, never more so than at the present time.

NED was founded 35 years ago, a hopeful moment when what was subsequently called the Third Wave of Democratization was just beginning to gather momentum.  As we well know, the current period is very different.   2018 marked the 13th consecutive year, according to Freedom House, that democracy has declined in the world.  This period has seen the rising power and assertiveness of authoritarian states like China, Russia, and Iran; the backsliding of once democratic countries like Turkey, Venezuela, the Philippines, Thailand, and Hungary; and the rise of populist and nationalist movements and parties in the established democracies.

Autocratic regimes have tried to repress independent groups working to promote greater freedom and to cut them off from international assistance from institutions like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), NED’s party institutes.  They have also passed harsh laws that make it illegal for NGOs to receive foreign assistance.

The work nonetheless goes on and has even been expanding, which is a testament to the determination and the courage of indigenous groups who want to continue to work and receive needed assistance despite the risks.

We should not forget that despite all the backsliding, there have also been important gains over the past year in Ethiopia, Armenia, and Malaysia.  NED was providing support to democrats in all of these countries before the political openings, which positioned us to quickly scale up our support once the openings occurred.  This is an example of our commitment and ability to navigate around the obstacles created by authoritarian regimes and to continue to provide assistance while taking care to protect the safety of our grantees.

NED is an unusual institution that was built to take on tough challenges.  Following President Ronald Reagan’s historic Westminster Address in 1982, which called for a new effort to support democracy throughout the world, NED was created as a non-governmental organization governed by a private and independent board of directors.

NED receives its core funding in the form of an annual congressional appropriation that was authorized in the National Endowment for Democracy Act passed in 1983.  The NED Act also built a fire-wall between the Endowment and the executive branch of our government.  NED is a private, bipartisan, grant-making institution that steers clear of immediate policy disputes and takes a long-term approach to democratic development.  In addition to supporting grassroots democratic initiatives, it also serves as a hub of activity, resources, and intellectual exchange for democracy activists, practitioners, and analysts around the world.

The NED takes a multi-sectoral approach to democracy assistance, funding programs by its four core institutes, which represent our two major political parties, the business community and the labor movement.  I’m aware that you heard from the presidents of our two party institutes, NDI and IRI, just two weeks ago.  Each of the NED’s four core institutes is able to access its sector’s expertise and experience from all over the world.

In addition, NED’s targeted, demand-driven small grants program responds directly to the needs of local NGOs defending human rights, strengthens independent media and civic education, and empowers women and youth in a manner that enables them to establish credibility as independent democratizing forces in their own societies.  As an autonomous institution dedicated to supporting democracy, NED can steadily strengthen indigenous civil-society organizations, learn through trial and error, and build important networks of trust and collaboration that can be effective over the long term.

Moreover, as a nimble private organization with no field offices abroad, NED has developed a reputation for acting swiftly, flexibly, and effectively in providing vital assistance to activists working in the most challenging environments.  It also devotes enormous effort to monitoring the work of our grantees and to fulfilling its fiduciary responsibilities in the careful management of taxpayer funds.

NED further leverages its grants program through networking and recognition activities that provide political support and solidarity to frontline activists.  These activities include the World Movement for Democracy, which networks democracy activists globally; the Center for International Media Assistance; the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows Program; and our Democracy Award events on Capitol Hill.  NED also promotes scholarly research through the International Forum for Democratic Studies and the Journal of Democracy, giving activists access to the latest insights on aiding democratic transitions and strengthening liberal values, and also helping to inform thinking internationally on critical new challenges facing democracy.

In 2015, the Congress provided NED with additional funds to develop a strategic plan to respond to resurgent authoritarianism.  As part of this plan, NED now funds programs that address six strategic priorities: helping civil society respond to repression; defending the integrity of the information space; countering extremism and promoting pluralism and tolerance; reversing the failure of governance in many transitional countries; countering the kleptocracy that is a pillar of modern authoritarianism; and strengthening cooperation among democracies in meeting the threat to democracy.

By pursuing common strategic objectives, the entire NED effort has become stronger and more integrated, with greater cooperation taking place across the different regions and among the five institutions – NED and its four core institutes – that comprise what we call the NED family.

As Canada thinks about how to establish an effective – and cost-effective – way to advance democracy in the world, I suggest that you consider the distinction that is drawn in a new European report between what it calls top-down and bottom-up approaches to democracy assistance.  In essence, the top-down approach supports the incremental reform of, for example, the judiciary or other institutions, often in a technocratic way and in partnership with governments that may be only superficially committed to democratic reform.  The alternative bottom-up approach responds to and seeks to empower local actors to address immediate challenges they face and to develop their capacity to promote reform and institutional accountability over the long term.

The report recommends a “substantial strengthening of the bottom-up instruments” such as the European Endowment for Democracy, an organization modeled on NED that the report says has been effective in dealing with the current difficult challenges.

I want to conclude by stating my strong and long-held belief that Canada has the ability to make an important contribution to strengthening democracy internationally, especially at this very uncertain moment when liberal democracy is under attack around the world.  You have hundreds of dedicated democracy practitioners, many of them veterans of NDI and IRI programs, who have the experience to lead a new Canadian effort.  The U.S. is still engaged in this work, and there is strong bipartisan support in the Congress for what NED does and for human rights and democracy more generally.  But the American voice is now more muted than in the past, and the time has come for Canada to step up and provide a new of source of democratic energy and drive.

There are many practical ways that you can help, but the decision to create a new instrument to provide such help will itself be an important act of democratic solidarity, one that will give hope to many brave activists and make our world a safer and more peaceful place.