Democracy Promotion as an EA Cause Area


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 (OpenSo­cietyFoun­da­, 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. ↩︎