The Democracy Industry

Democracy today is big business. Elections are very labour intensive and, to ensure the security of the ballot, also require sophisticated equipment and materials. Some two million poll workers were needed in Indonesia, plus everything from ballot boxes to indelible ink. To deal with voter registration and the election itself will cost even a smallish country of, say, five million electors, around thirty million US dollars. Clearly such levels of expenditure are beyond the financial capacity of most of the new democracies and in recent years considerable international aid has been centred on assisting the practical details of the transition to democracy. A significant amount of the procurement has, at the moment, to be supplied from the developed world and some of the aid thus goes back to the donor countries.

The high cost of the electoral process is an inhibiting factor to a country that may need to advance the date of its next election for legitimate purposes. It is also a significant factor in considering whether or not to have provincial and district voting separate from parliamentary elections, as a way, for instance, of focusing attention on local issues.

In addition to all the direct election costs, there is also an increasing democracy industry providing technical assistance and co-ordinating observer missions. Increasingly, with substantial operating profits at stake, this has become a commercial business enterprise, fuelled by the introduction of competitive tendering by some governments and by the European Commission - probably the biggest current player on the pitch. Although a number of the organisations employed in this field are specialists, such as the London based Electoral Reform Society and its international subsidiary Electoral Reform International Services (ERIS), and the American International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in that they do no other consultancy work, many of the large consultancy companies, such as the UK based GJW and the Dutch firm, Planet, have spread into the election market. Another generalist public relations company, The Public Affairs Company, based in the north of England, has set up a separate company, Democracy International, to compete for work. Professional bodies, such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and the Association of Election Adminstrators (AEA), both UK based, also have separate commercial organisations. Most of these companies have had an involvement in the Indonesian election.

Although most of the formal organisations are based in the UK and USA, other countries are active in the field, often using their development organisations, such as SIDA in Sweden, or research bodies, such as the Eberhausen Institute in Germany. Other European countries, such as France, have no effective channel for identifying and promoting specialists in electoral and related fields.

Although this work burgeoned following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) was actually founded in 1884, and has been involved in international assistance work since 1910. The Society has a formidable reputation for independence and neutrality, and is the only such NGO with consultative status with the UN's ECOSOC organisation. Unusually in this field, ERS has a large Ballot Services subsidiary - with sixty-five permanent staff - which conducts actual elections for trade unions, housing associations, professional bodies etc. With the advent of so many new democracies clamouring for help by 1991, ERS hived off its international consultancy work to another subsidiary, ERIS. Unlike its Ballot Services partner, ERIS has not yet been expected by its parent body to produce a profit - a situation which its more commercial competitors complain gives it an advantage when tendering for work.

IFES was set up in 1987, with its first reports, on Nigeria and Paraguay, appearing the following year. Its first foray into Europe came with the opening up of Hungary in 1989, an event which signalled a coming opportunity to other specialists. GJW, for instance, opened an office in Budapest shortly afterwards, with Andrew Ellis in charge.

Essentially, all these companies, whatever their antecedents, are now highly commercial. The compulsory tendering process, started by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government in the UK, and followed by the European Commission, has forced the companies into competition for work. Arguably, their very different structures, particularly whether not for profit or completely in the private enterprise sector, ensures that the competition is far from being on an equal basis, but there is also a potential bias in that some organisations can put in lower bids as they use mainly older consultants who have a substantial salary or pension and, therefore, do not require as high a consultancy fee as those who depend on this work for a living. Nor can bids for the same contract easily be evaluated between, say, ERIS, who traditionally have used a high proportion of consultants with a political background, and SOLACE whose main background is the local government civil service. Stories abound of square pegs in round holes. Given the nature of the work, negotiated contracts with individual organisations, based on their experience and expressed specialisms, would produce better results. Alternatively, the direct employment of individual consultants by the commissioning organisation, as was done by UNDP in Indonesia, may even be easier and less expensive.

Those who now specialise in international political consultancy work, like myself, are essentially on a big global circuit and we meet up at election after election, or at the same workshops, seminars and training sessions. The regulars are certainly highly professional and very often have to rescue registration or electoral processes from impending disaster by their sheer ability to improvise. Again, the stories of such battle honours abound on the circuit. Our CVs are with many of the same companies and we are often approached for the same project by two or more different companies! Basically, all of us, companies and individuals, maintain a watchful eye on what elections are coming up in which countries, and then ascertain whether an international organisation, or a particular country, is taking on a significant role in funding aspects of the electoral process. Then, for the companies, it is a question of getting in on the act, putting together the specialists with the relevant expertise, and bidding for a contract. To a greater or a lesser extent, the companies have had to become predatory - some much more than others. It is big business and there is considerable money at stake on the larger contracts, with companies making upwards of 15% on each consultant's remuneration, in addition to management fees.

The democracy industry has grown rapidly and haphazardly over the past decade. It plays a crucial role in underpinning the democratic process in very many countries. Without the accumulated experience and expertise of the teams of specialist consultants - probably numbering in total no more than 250 - it is unlikely that many of the young democracies would even survive, let alone get to the stage of coping without external assistance, as some are now doing. But it is high time there was some examination of the industry, its structure, the basis of tendering and competition, whether direct employment would be more effective, and so on. One of the more recent independent bodies in this field, the Stockholm based International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has as one of its aims to provide a forum for interaction and exchange of experiences among a variety of global actors involved in the promotion of democracy. Perhaps it would be appropriate for IDEA to take a long cool look at the workings of the democracy industry.