USAID's Paul Bonicelli

Interview | Bonicelli explains how the United States promotes democracy, why there's hope for Iraq, and why culture matters

Issue: "The people have spoken," Feb. 4, 2006

Paul Bonicelli, a former staffer with the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives, and then academic dean of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., now oversees the $1.2 billion that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spends annually on democracy and governance programs, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan. As President Bush "talks the talk" on democracy-building in the Middle East and around the world in his Jan. 31 State of the Union address, Mr. Bonicelli must "walk that talk."

WORLD Why should the United States be involved in democracy-building programs? Isn't it elitist to presume that democracy is always the best system for other nations and cultures?

BONICELLI The president has said many times that freedom isn't America's gift to the world, it's God's gift to humanity. Human beings are moral agents with reasoning capacity. They have a right and an ability and even a duty to govern their affairs. When they are not able to, it is often because of poverty or oppression, and the goal of this agency is to help alleviate these obstacles so that people can stand up for themselves and be self-governing.

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That's not just altruism, that's good for our nation's security. History shows that democracies are less likely to go to war with other democracies, and democratic states seek to be good members of the international community rather than state sponsors of terrorism and promoters of war.

WORLD How does USAID promote democracy?

BONICELLI There are four kinds of democracy-building activities: strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights, promoting more genuine and competitive elections and political processes, implementing a more transparent and accountable governance, and developing civil society.

USAID has 400 officers in 80 missions around the world. In rule-of-law activities we train judges and we teach about anti-corruption, so that a country can have a stable legal environment and be able to participate in world markets. For promoting genuine political processes, we train [citizens in other countries how] to have clean elections. Good governance covers things like parliamentary training. In some countries there's been no tradition of parliamentary government so people don't know what it is to be a loyal opposition, or how to be an effective legislator.

We also have civil servants teaching about the structure of a civil service. We helped organize the sessions that led to the writing of the constitutions in Afghanistan and Iraq. These were produced by the Afghans and the Iraqis but with our help and support. Civil society is the building block of democracy, and we promote that by encouraging groups to organize and express their interests.

WORLD How do you do that without coming across as domineering, thereby fueling anti-Americanism in the countries you're trying to help?

BONICELLI You look for those local groups, those local activists who say, we love democracy, we want a voice in our government, and so we support them with material resources, helping them technically with skills, workshops, training, that kind of thing. There are also American NGOs, European, and others that we give money to and then monitor and make sure it's what we're paying for. But we largely work through foreign nationals. We are not an army of Americans on the ground, telling everybody what to do. Not only is that not our mission, it wouldn't work.

In Haiti, for example, we support the local affiliate of Transparency International to train the judiciary, to try to help them put an end to pretrial detentions. Also, there are great concerns about the huge mass of unemployed and uneducated youth who are fodder for extremist political movements. So there is much attention to jobs programs, education programs, and skills training, so these youths are not ready prey for those who would encourage them to violence.

WORLD How do you decide how and where to focus USAID's efforts? Which countries, for now, are highest on the priority list?

BONICELLI Iraq and Afghanistan are obvious ones. Cuba still is not a democracy; we'd like to be ready when it's possible to help the Cuban people. There are several countries in Latin America, such as Colombia, where the narco-terrorists threaten that state, and there are considerable needs in places like the West Bank and Gaza. Sudan is probably the top concern for USAID in Africa because of the long-running civil war and the ethnic and religious persecution. Zimbabwe is troubling because you have a power grab by the president [who in seizing private land is] violating property rights.


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