The concept of development helps rationalize the position of autocrats by postulating an unstoppable transition toward a bright future. This is why donors call all poor countries “developing.” Once the donors started paying lip service to democracy, they could label undemocratic aid recipients as “democratizing.” Let’s call this the Gerund Defense for supporting dictators. Thomas Carothers, an expert on the connections between aid and democracy, described the Gerund Defense in a classic article [Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion (Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 2004), p. 169]. He quoted a USAID description of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as a country in “transition to a democratic, free market society.” (Such “democratizing” is still notably weak in 2010.)
The World Bank’s response to Helen Epstein’s article in these pages accusing the bank of supporting Ethiopian tyranny is a classic Gerund Defense. The World Bank’s country director for Ethiopia and Sudan, Ken Ohashi, replied:
We start…with a belief that in every country people want…to develop a transparent, accountable…governance system. Ethiopia is no exception. Our task…is to support that innate tendency.
However, building institutions… takes a long time…. Changes are incremental, and at times they may suffer serious setbacks….
The Gerund Defense has the attraction of being irrefutable. We don’t know the future, so we don’t know whether a particular event is a “setback” to “building institutions,” or whether the “building” is a myth. We could of course observe the actual trend in “democratizing”—but this has been discouraging in Ethiopia, where parties and politicians that seriously challenge the government risk prison. Donors could conceivably overlook anything, even the 1994 Rwanda genocide, as a temporary “setback” to an “innate tendency.” Such a view is not as easily dismissed as you might think.