Theories of Democratic Change III (2019)

Phase 3: Transitions from Conflict

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Principal Investigators:

The notion that robust democracy and violent conflict are linked is commonplace. Many observers of international politics attribute violent conflict in contexts as diverse as Myanmar and Syria to failures of democracy. Conversely, most agree that continuing political violence undermines any effort to build strong democratic institutions in Libya or South Sudan. As a matter of policy, democratization has often been promoted not only as an end in itself but as a means toward building peace in societies scarred by violence. Development professionals tackle these challenges daily, confronting vicious cycles of political violence and weak democratic institutions. At the same time, scholars have dedicated intense scrutiny to these questions, often finding that the interrelationships between conflict and democracy belie easy categorization.

This report, the third in a series on democratic theories of change, critically engages with this literature to ask three questions:

  • Under what circumstances do democratic practice or movement toward democracy quell (or exacerbate) the risk of different kinds of violent conflict?
  • Under what circumstances do the risk and experience of violent conflict undermine democratic practice?
  • How can external interventions mitigate risks and capitalize on opportunities inherent in transitions to democracy and peace?

To answer these questions, a research team at George Mason University and Georgetown University spent eight months compiling, organizing, and evaluating the academic literature connecting democratic practice and violent conflict, which spans the fields of political science, economics, peace studies, anthropology, sociology, and psychology. This work was funded by USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (the DRG Center), under the Institute of International Education’s (IIE’s) Democracy Fellows and Grants Program. Beginning in May 2018, the authors organized a team of three research assistants, who read and summarized more than 600 journal articles, books, reports, and newspaper articles. The resulting White Paper was the subject of an August 2018 workshop with representatives from USAID and an interdisciplinary group of eight scholars with expertise in conflict and democracy. Based on their feedback, the authors developed a new Theories of Change Matrix and White Paper in October 2018. This draft received further written feedback from USAID and another three scholars. The core team then revised the report again to produce this final draft. This report’s approach to the literature differs from past phases of the Theories of Democratic Change project. While past reports detailed the hypothesized causes of democratic backsliding (Phase I) and democratic transitions (Phase II), this report focuses on the reciprocal relationship between democratic practice and conflict. The report therefore organizes hypotheses into two questions and then sub-categories within each question.

Democracy Fellows and Grants Program

Democracy Fellows and Grants Program