The aid helped boost civil society and press freedom, but had "a significant negative impact on the human rights outcome," according to a report called "Deepening Our Understanding of the Effects of US Foreign Assistance on Democracy Building." The 103-page study said:
This counter-intuitive finding remains an unanswered puzzle for us, having resisted all our efforts to explain it.The U.S. Agency for International Development hired scholars from the University of Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt University to conduct the study, which examined USAID assistance to 165 countries, including Cuba. The scholars wrote:
We conclude by noting that the evidence supporting a positive impact of USAID on democracy is clear. This does not mean, of course, that in the future this will continue to be the case. Shifts in where, when and how USAID spends its democracy assistance, and shifting trends in democracy world-wide could make the assistance more or less effective in the future. Yet, we feel that the 14 years of data we have analyzed here provide a robust basis for drawing the conclusion that USAID DG (Democracy and Governance) assistance in the post-Cold War period has worked.
The four scholars examined the impact of aid from 1990 to 2005. They concluded that sustained USAID assistance can help countries improve their Freedom House scores.
Freedom House is a non-profit organization that received $111.3 million from USAID and $15.6 million from the State Department from 2007 to 2012, according to USASpending.gov. The group measures human rights, civil liberties and press freedom on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 being the most free.
In the latest Freedom House assessment, Cuba scored 6.5 on the scale and was judged "not free." By comparison, Venezuela received 5 points and was also judged "partly free," Mexico and Ecuador, 3 points each; Brazil, 2 points; and Chile, 1 point.
The four scholars - Steven E. Finkel and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán of the University of Pittsburgh, and Mitchell A. Seligson and C. Neal Tate of Vanderbilt University - wrote that USAID assistance "may take some time to 'work.'" Their January 2008 study said:
...a permanent ten million dollar investment is predicted to have a cumulative impact of over one-half of a point on the Freedom House scale.If that's true, then Cuba's score should improve from 6.5 to 6 points by 2015. (U.S. democracy aid to Cuba has been $10 million or more every year since 2005 - see graphic). But human rights abuses could rise.
The scholars gave several possible explanations for the rise in human rights abuses in countries that received democracy aid from 1990 to 2005. One explanation is that more money for human rights increases the reporting of abuses, but not necessarily the actual abuses. The study said:
More democracy assistance in the human rights area leads to higher levels of revealed human rights abuses, but not necessarily higher levels of actual abuse.The authors of the study said USAID "took a bold risk" when commissioning the study because:
...there was always the risk that the study would have shown that the funds on average had no positive impact, regardless of evidence about the success of individual projects in particular countries in particular years.But, they concluded, democracy aid over time generally boosts freedom in recipient nations.
The results could also have found a systematic negative effect, such that U.S. efforts to promote democracy actually slowed progress toward democracy in some countries and/or “caused” reversals in others.
Certainly the limited research that existed prior to our effort suggested exactly those kinds of no-impact, negative impact, giving support to those who have been critical of U.S. foreign assistance in general, or democracy assistance in particular.