World Politics

Research Article

The Effects of U.S. Foreign Assistance on Democracy Building, 1990–2003

Steven E. Finkela1, Aníbal Pérez-Liñána2 and Mitchell A. Seligsona3*

a1 University of Pittsburgh,

a2 University of Pittsburgh,

a3 Vanderbilt University,


Democracy promotion has been an explicit doctrine of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the cold war. Between 1990 and 2003 resources for democracy programs increased by over 500 percent. Has this policy worked? Prior research has been inconclusive, relying either on case studies or on quantitative efforts that have not distinguished overall foreign assistance from democracy promotion. The authors answer this question using a new data set that includes program information for 165 countries for the years 1990–2003. The analysis distinguishes between direct and indirect causal mechanisms and employs a variety of statistical models that allow the authors to control for the unique democratization trend in each country when assessing causal effects, as well as for the potential endogeneity of U.S. democracy assistance. The analysis shows that democracy assistance does indeed have a significant impact.

Steven E. Finkel is the Daniel Wallace Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh and, jointly during 2005–8, professor of applied methods at the Hertie School of Governance (Berlin). He has published widely in the areas of political participation, democratic attitudes, and voting behavior. Since 1997 he has conducted numerous evaluations of the effectiveness of U.S. and other donors’ civic education programs in developing democracies. He can be reached at

Aníbal Pérez-Liñán is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America (2007). He is currendy working on a book (coauthored with Scott Mainwaring) on the waves of democratization in Latin America. He can be reached at

Mitchell A. Seligson is the Centennial Professor of Political Science and a fellow of the Center for the Americas at Vanderbilt University. He is the director of the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), which conducts the Americas Barometer surveys. He can be reached at

* This study was supported by a grant from the Association Liaison Office (ALO) to Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Pittsburgh. For their support and assistance with the study, we thank Margaret Sarles, David Black, Mark Billera of USAID, Andrew Green of Georgetown University (formerly of USAID), and Dinorah Azpuru. For their advice and criticism, we thank Michael Bratton, Michael Coppedge, Mark Hallerberg, and Pamela Paxton. Earlier versions of this paper were presented to the conference on Evaluation Techniques and Democracy Promotion, sponsored by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), Stockholm, April 2006, to the seminar “In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Electoral Intervention in the Americas,” Yale University, April 2006, to the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Philadelphia, September 2006, to the conference on Democracy Promotion and International Cooperation, Denver, September 2006, sponsored by the Center for Civic Education and the German Political Education Ministry, to the Comparative Politics Reading Group at the University of Pittsburgh, January 2007, to the Faculty Colloquium Series, Hertie School of Governance, Berlin, April 2007, and to the seminar Measuring Success and Failure in Democracy Promotion, Johns Hopkins University, SA1S, April 2007. For exceptionally skillful research assistance, special thanks go to Andrea Castagnola, Ana Carolina Garriga, and Laura Wills Otero. For replication data sets and additional information, see