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The Status of Civil Society Influences Whether Democracy Aid Spurs Civil War

The Status of Civil Society Influences Whether Democracy Aid Spurs Civil War

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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following: Braithwaite, J., & Licht, A. (2020). The effect of civil society organizations and democratization aid on civil war onset. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 64(6), 1095-1120.

Talking Points

  • Foreign democracy aid increases the likelihood of violence in contexts where civil society organizations (CSOs) are weaker—where these groups have faced state repression and/or exclusion, or where they exhibit low trust in the government’s commitment to democratic reforms.
  • In countries where CSOs are “stronger and more protected,” foreign democracy aid has a much weaker effect on the likelihood of armed conflict than it does elsewhere, as CSOs in such cases have more faith in the government’s commitment to democracy and in legal means to effect change.
  • These results suggest that international donors should be cautious about sending democracy aid to countries with weaker civil societies as it may induce political violence, instead prioritizing democracy aid to countries with already well-established civil societies.


Whether foreign aid promotes violent conflict or peace in recipient countries is debated, with evidence pointing in both directions. In some contexts, foreign aid has a destabilizing effect on conflict dynamics, but, in other contexts, foreign democracy aid can lessen risks of armed conflict onset. With this in mind, Jessica Braithwaite and Amanda Licht examine whether the status of civil society organizations in a country receiving foreign democracy aid influences the likelihood of civil war onset. They find that democracy aid is most likely to foster civil war when “it is directed to environments where CSOs have previously faced repression” but that it has a milder effect on the risk of armed conflict when directed to environments where “civil society is stronger and more protected.”

Democracy aid: Foreign assistance that is earmarked for “legal training, crime prevention, and civil society strengthening.” For CSOs, in particular, it can help them “develop and manage their organizations more effectively, in terms of framing and disseminating information about government actions and shortcomings…as well as to increase advocacy and mobilization/recruitment capacities.”

Civil society organizations (CSOs): “[O]rganizations which are separate from the state, enjoy autonomy in relation to the state and are formed voluntarily by members of society to protect or extend their interests or values” (White, 1994, p. 379). The authors specify types of organizations like, “village associations, ethnic and religious organizations, environmental groups, political movements (distinct from political parties), trade unions, women’s rights groups, and [others].”

White, G. (1994). Civil society, democratization and development: Clearing the analytical ground. Democratization,1(2), 375-90.

The dynamics between CSOs and governments underpin this result, particularly in countries undergoing democratic reforms. According to existing research, the democratization process is understood to be a particularly volatile period in a country’s history with a higher risk of armed conflict onset. International donors may seek to assure confidence in democratic reforms through the provision of democracy aid, which helps CSOs improve communications (often critical of the state) and overcome collective action problems. Upon receiving this foreign aid, however, if CSOs do not trust the government to carry through with democratic reforms, or otherwise feel excluded or face continued repression, this aid could be used to support a violent, anti-government campaign. For instance, the authors note recent scholarship that found nearly 20% of rebel groups listed in the Uppsala Conflict Data program “grew out of organizations such as labor unions, student groups, faith-based and ethnic organizations, and political movements.”

Thus, in repressive contexts where there is low trust in democratic reforms, CSOs may use democracy aid to “pursue their political goals through extralegal and, potentially, violent methods,” allowing them to overcome the high costs associated with staging an armed rebellion. In contexts where CSOs believe that the government will respond positively to their peaceful activities, democracy aid may result in a reduced risk of violence. To empirically study whether countries with weaker CSOs are more likely to experience civil war after receiving democracy aid, the authors develop a unique dataset of low-to-middle-income countries (i.e., the only countries eligible for foreign assistance) over the time period from 1969 to 2011. They include variables on armed conflict onset, flows of democracy assistance, and the strength of civil society (via a civil society participation index), along with several other variables including the size of the population and economic growth.

The results show that foreign democracy aid to repressive contexts increases the risk of armed conflict, with countries with the “weakest civil society conditions” who receive maximum levels of democracy aid showing a “11.5-fold increase in the risk of violent unrest” over those receiving none. In contexts where CSOs are the strongest, foreign democracy aid has a milder effect on the likelihood of violence, with the risk of violence at maximum levels of democracy aid being about six times what it is without democracy aid—about half the rate of increase as seen in countries with the weakest civil societies. Interestingly, there is no significant decrease in the risk of violence as civil society conditions improve when no foreign democracy assistance is provided, suggesting that the introduction of foreign democracy assistance is a key variable in understanding the likelihood of violence during democratization.

In short, the authors conclude that foreign democracy aid works best—that is, has a lower, if still existent, risk of fostering political violence—in countries with already vibrant, strong, and well-protected CSOs, as that aid is put towards peaceful and legal means of change that the CSOs believe are effective. This finding presents challenges for international donors seeking to nurture democratic norms in more repressive contexts, suggesting that these donors should be cautious about the broader social and political context to which democracy aid may flow. The authors recommend that “efforts to bolster broader protections for CSOs and encourag[e] governments to interact more with these groups to normalize relations and build trust” should proceed prior to democracy aid to reduce the risk of violence. 

Informing Practice

These research results present a double-edged sword for policy makers and practitioners looking to strengthen democratic norms and institutions while simultaneously reducing the risk of violent conflict. Foreign democracy aid is most effective and harm-mitigating where democratic norms are already strong and protected (although it may still result in a small increased risk of violence even in these cases). In the contexts where international donors may want to prioritize foreign democracy aid—those countries where the government is more repressive and hostile to CSOs, where democratic norms are weaker, and where presumably democracy aid is most desperately needed—assistance may have the unintended effect of significantly increasing the risk of violence. This is relevant for the U.S. Global Fragility Act of 2019 and, particularly, for those U.S. officials tasked with allocating democracy assistance from the Prevention and Stabilization Fund—which devotes $200 million over the course of five years to violence prevention and stabilization operations in conflict-affected countries. It is critically important that U.S. democracy assistance be applied to contexts where it is most likely to reduce the risk of violence.

However, countries where democratic norms are the weakest should not necessarily be left out of foreign assistance, especially if there are encouraging signs that the society is becoming more open, free, and fair. A key take-away from this research is that social trust and relationship-building between CSOs and their governments is the necessary foundation for democracy aid to be effective. Any efforts to nurture social trust between all elements of society are critically important. These are the building blocks for any democracy to become strong and resilient.

Yet, the current moment in U.S. politics reminds us that the work of strengthening democracy is never over. It is painfully ironic to discuss the U.S. strategy to encourage democracy in so-called fragile contexts while the country is currently experiencing one of the greatest threats to its own democracy in recent history. Urgently, democracy must be strengthened in the U.S.—the former, now-twice-impeached president incited a far-right, violent mob of white supremacists to attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election by storming the U.S. Capitol. The U.S.’s own practice of democracy and peaceful resolution of conflict is threatened, fueled by conspiracy theories, political polarization, and widespread lies about election fraud. Critical investments are needed in the U.S.’s building blocks of democracy—we need to build stronger communities, heighten social trust and social cohesion, counter lies and disinformation, and beat back the dangerous path of radicalization and violent escalation that we witnessed on January 6, 2021. Thankfully, the U.S. has a long tradition of protecting the rights of civil society and, as we watch the first few days of the Biden Administration, we will hopefully see an emphasis on truth-telling emerge from the White House—an essential prerequisite for a strong and resilient democracy. [KC]  

Continued Reading

Peace Science Digest. (2020, July 25). Military aid worsens human rights conditions in post-conflict countries. Retrieved on January 12, 2021, from

Peace Science Digest. (2019, July 22). “Uncivil” society organizations in Bougainville and Timor-Leste: Subverting transitional justice in post-conflict settings. Retrieved on January 12, 2021, from

Merriman, H. (2017, September 7). Democracy insurance. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Retrieved on January 12, 2021, from

Yayboke, E. (2020, October 1). Ending violent conflicts requires preventing them in the first place. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Retrieved on January 11, 2021, from

Friedman, E. (2021, January 12). Our democracy is faltering, but we can’t rely on philanthropy to save it. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved on January 12, 2021, from


The Carter Center:

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights:

International Center on Nonviolent Conflict:

Key Words: foreign assistance, foreign aid, democracy, civil society organizations, Global Fragility Act

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