Democracy Promotion as an EA Cause Area

by bryanschonfeld6 min read1st Jul 202015 comments


Less-Discussed CausesPolicy ChangeCause Prioritization


In this short essay, I will assess the grounds for democracy promotion as an EA cause area--to my knowledge the first such attempt to do so. I will demonstrate the importance of democratization for various outcomes considered important by EA organizations, including the reduction of global poverty, the promotion of peace and public health, and the mitigation of global catastrophic risks (GCRs).


At the end of the Cold War, alternatives to democracy seemed to be in secular decline, ushering in "the end of history."[1] However, recent "Freedom in the World" reports from Freedom House indicate declines in the global share of countries considered "Free" and a rise in the proportion of countries considered "Not Free." Their most recent report indicates that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline for global freedom. While this trend has sparked concern among democracy activists, it has gone largely unnoticed by effective altruist organizations. In this essay, I will argue that promoting democracy may be a promising EA focus area.

There may be many philosophical reasons why democracy is intrinsically preferable to autocracy--EAs with non-utilitarian perspectives may value democratic institutions because they respect the dignity of citizens and represent the popular will. Because these benefits of democracy would be obvious to many readers, this essay instead highlights the utilitarian benefits of democratic governance. Specifically, I highlight how democratic governance can increase economic growth, improve public health, and reduce the likelihood of interstate conflict and other global catastrophic risks.

Throughout this essay, I primarily cite peer-reviewed research published in top-tier political science and economics journals. I refer mostly to recent articles, as standards for empirical research have become more rigorous over time, especially with regards to isolating causal effects ("causal inference") rather than merely examining correlations.


I will first demonstrate the importance of democracy promotion for improving public health, reducing global poverty, and mitigating global catastrophic risks. I begin by considering the domestic benefits of democracy, before moving on to the positive externalities of democratic governance for various international issues.

Domestic Benefits

There is strong reason to believe that democratization can have substantial benefits for reducing poverty and improving public health within the democratizing country. Democratization expands the size of the group that selects the government (the "selectorate"), so democracies are less likely to pursue policies that favor a narrow few at the expense of broad-based prosperity. [2] Recently published research in political economy finds a strong causal effect of democratization on economic growth. Acemoglu et. al. 2019 estimate that democratization produces a 20 percent boost in GDP over a 25 year period relative to the counterfactual of no transition to democracy. Democracies grow faster because they invest more in capital, education and public health--themselves key outcomes for human flourishing.[3] The accountability mechanisms of democracy encourage politicians in developing countries to take steps to prevent famines [4] and to reduce tariff barriers that protect elite capital interests at the expense of broad economic gains for workers. [5]

There are reasons to think democratization is important not only in the near term but also from a longtermist perspective. Political institutions are a stronger determinant of a country's wealth than weather or culture. [6] There is substantial empirical evidence that economic development is highly path dependent-- economic and political institutions persist for hundreds of years, and have corresponding consequences for economic development.[7] Because of long-term institutional persistence, improving democratic institutions today can lead to better institutions--and correspondingly better economic outcomes--not only in the near-term but also for the "long-term future."

Positive Externalities

Democratic governance produces not only domestic benefits but also positive externalities for global public health, poverty and GCR mitigation. Democracies make more of their policy relevant data available to the world.[8] This particular downside of autocracy was on display recently in the case of Covid-19. Chinese officials told the World Health Organization there was no evidence of human to human transmission-- even as their government restricted medical supply exports to stockpile supplies for domestic use. This obfuscation by the Chinese government imposed significant negative externalities for global public health as well as for the global economy. While EAs have long been concerned about pandemic risks, the role of political institutions has been largely neglected as a contributing risk factor--indeed, Covid-19 has thus far been deadlier in non-democracies.[9]

Perhaps the most important positive externality of democratic institutions is the "democratic peace," regarded as the "closest thing we have to an empirical law in international relations."[10] There exists a "separate peace" among democracies-- fully democratic states have never fought one another. [11] Democratization can therefore reduce the global catastrophic risk posed by interstate warfare.[12]

Another positive externality is higher levels of interstate trade. Democratic pairs of countries engage in unusually high levels of bilateral trade.[13] Leading researchers of globalization link expanding global trade to faster growth and declining poverty in poor countries ; while the short term impacts of trade liberalization are sometimes destabilizing, "In the long run and on average, trade liberalization is likely to be strongly poverty alleviating." [14] The bulk of the evidence suggests the link between democratization and trade liberalization is a net positive for tackling global poverty and increasing economic growth. Finally, another externality of democracy promotion is that democratization in one country tends to promote democracy in neighboring countries. [15] Investments in democracy promotion in one country may therefore facilitate a "wave" of democratization in the region.


Having demonstrated the importance of democratic institutions, I now assess the extent to which democracy promotion is neglected by governments and philanthropic organizations. It is difficult to assess the amount of funding devoted to democracy promotion due to the larger number and variety of civil society organizations around the world. Perhaps the largest single source of spending on global democracy promotion is the United States government. U.S. Foreign policy institutions (the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other entities) provide more than $2 billion in annual funding for democracy promotion according to a Congressional Research Service report from January 4, 2019. [16] Another prominent promoter of democracy is the United Nations Democracy Fund UNDEF), founded in 2005, which funds initiatives that "empower civil society, promote human rights, and encourage the participation of all groups in democratic processes." UNDEF mostly funds local civil society organizations in countries that are either transitioning to democracy or consolidating their new democratic institutions. The UNDEF budget comes from member state contributions--they fund about 50 projects a year that cost between $100,000 and $300,000 each (so the maximum estimate of their annual spending would be $15 million, a relatively small sum).

Another prominent source of funding for pro-democracy programs is the
Open Society Foundations (OPF). According to their website (, the organization's 2020 budget of $1.2 billion included $140.5 million to improve democratic practices, along with another $77.3 million for human rights movements and institutions. There are also organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, though these organizations focus primarily on documenting civil rights abuses rather than promoting the creation and consolidation of representative political institutions.

With a few exceptions, democracy promotion seems to be largely neglected outside of the promotion of U.S. foreign policy interests. This represents an opportunity for EA for a few reasons. The first is that EA can be open to empirical evidence on the most effective way to promote democratic institutions, rather than being guided by perceived political priorities (and by the way things "have always been done.") EA organizations are also less likely to be perceived as biased or self-interested actors. Finally, even though there are already organizations engaged in democracy promotion, recent evidence suggests that greater diversity in the donors providing pro-democracy aid makes democratic reform more likely.[17]


Having demonstrated the importance of democracy for economic and public health outcomes (and for GCRs), and having considered the neglectedness of this cause, I now assess the degree to which democracy promotion is actually tractable.

A review essay on the efficacy of tools of external democracy promotion finds that non-coercive tools like foreign aid that is conditioned on democratic reforms and election monitoring are effective, while coercive tools like sanctions and military intervention are ineffective. [18] Of course, EA organizations are unlikely to pursue imposing sanctions or authorizing military interventions even if these tools "work" for both normative and practical reasons--but there is thankfully a convergence between the tools available to EA organizations and the instruments that have proven to actually be successful in supporting democratic governance. One tool EA organizations can fund is election monitoring. Research suggests that election monitoring can play a causal role in decreasing fraud and manipulation. [19]

Another effective tool of democracy promotion is pro-democracy foreign aid. A recent article explains that "over a decade of empirical research indicates that foreign aid specifically for democracy promotion is remarkably successful at improving the survival and institutional strength of fragile democracies."[20] Drawing on a natural experiment, Carnegie and Marinov (2017) estimate that increases in conditional aid from the EU cause substantial improvements in institutionalized democracy in recipient countries. [21] The bulk of the recent evidence suggests that increasing pro-democracy aid may prove to be an effective intervention for EA organizations. Because institutions tend to persist, even small boosts to the consolidation of democratic institutions in transitioning countries can have substantial effects on the long-term future.


I have shown above that democracy promotion is a highly important cause, a somewhat neglected cause and a potentially tractable cause for EAs.
Beyond promoting democratization as an EA cause area, I also wish to endorse a broader research agenda within EA organizations on the role of
political institutions. While organizations like the Open Philanthropy Project have focused their efforts on particular policies like immigration, criminal justice and land use, it is worth noting that political institutions are themselves important determinants of public policy. Democracies invest more in public health and education, and grow at faster rates--with important long-run implications for the elimination of global poverty. Further research should more explicitly consider the importance of political institutions, rather than taking them as given.

  1. Fukuyama, Francis. "The end of history?." The national interest 16 (1989): 3-18. ↩︎

  2. De Mesquita, Bruce Bueno, et al. The logic of political survival. MIT press, 2005. ↩︎

  3. Acemoglu, Daron, et al. "Democracy does cause growth." Journal of Political Economy 127.1 (2019): 47-100. ↩︎

  4. Sen, Amartya. Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford university press, 1982. ↩︎

  5. Milner, Helen V., and Keiko Kubota. "Why the move to free trade? Democracy and trade policy in the developing countries." International organization (2005): 107-143. ↩︎

  6. Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Why nations fail: The origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. Currency, 2012. ↩︎

  7. Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson. "The colonial origins of comparative development: An empirical investigation." American economic review 91.5 (2001): 1369-1401. See also Dell, Melissa. "The persistent effects of Peru's mining mita." Econometrica 78.6 (2010): 1863-1903. ↩︎

  8. Hollyer, James R., B. Peter Rosendorff, and James Raymond Vreeland. "Democracy and transparency." The Journal of Politics 73.4 (2011): 1191-1205. ↩︎

  9. Economist. "Diseases Like Covid‐19 are Deadlier in Non‐democracies." The Economist (2020). ↩︎

  10. Levy, Jack S. "Domestic politics and war." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18.4 (1988): 653-673. ↩︎

  11. De Mesquita, Bruce Bueno, et al. "An institutional explanation of the democratic peace." American Political Science Review 93.4 (1999): 791-807. ↩︎

  12. With regards to nuclear risks specifically, research indicates that dictators are especially likely to pursue nuclear proliferation (see Way, Christopher, and Jessica LP Weeks. "Making it personal: regime type and nuclear proliferation." American Journal of Political Science 58.3 (2014): 705-719.). ↩︎

  13. Mansfield, Edward D., Helen V. Milner, and B. Peter Rosendorff. "Free to trade: Democracies, autocracies, and international trade." American Political Science Review 94.2 (2000): 305-321. ↩︎

  14. Winters, L. Alan, Neil McCulloch, and Andrew McKay. "Trade liberalization and poverty: the evidence so far." Journal of economic literature 42.1 (2004): 72-115. ↩︎

  15. Markoff, John. "Beyond the Great Democratic Wave." Waves of Democracy. Routledge, 2015. 160-176. ↩︎

  16. Lawson, M. L., and S. B. Epstein. "Democracy promotion: an objective of US foreign assistance. Congressional Research Service Report." (2019). ↩︎

  17. Ziaja, Sebastian. "More donors, more democracy." The Journal of Politics 82.2 (2020): 433-447. ↩︎

  18. Krasner, Stephen D., and Jeremy M. Weinstein. "Improving governance from the outside in." Annual Review of Political Science 17 (2014): 123-145. ↩︎

  19. Hyde, Susan D. "The observer effect in international politics: Evidence from a natural experiment." World Politics. 60 (2007): 37. See also Callen, Michael, and James D. Long. "Institutional corruption and election fraud: Evidence from a field experiment in Afghanistan." American Economic Review 105.1 (2015): 354-81. ↩︎

  20. Heinrich, Tobias, and Matt W. Loftis. "Democracy aid and electoral accountability." Journal of Conflict Resolution 63.1 (2019): 139-166. ↩︎

  21. Carnegie, Allison, and Nikolay Marinov. "Foreign aid, human rights, and democracy promotion: Evidence from a natural experiment." American Journal of Political Science 61.3 (2017): 671-683. ↩︎