How to defend our democracies effectively

Demonstration vor dem Deutschen Bundestag

Since the publication of the CORRECTIV investigation „Secret plan against Germany“ on 10 January 2024, the threat to democracy has been on the minds of many Germans. Over 3 million people have taken to the streets in recent months to demonstrate against right-wing extremism, making it the largest public protest in Germany since World War II.

Of course, similar developments have taken place in many countries in recent years, with the German case serving as a particularly striking and timely proxy for trends and events in Europe and around the world.

As events unfolded, my colleagues and I asked ourselves: Is the recent furor, in Germany and elsewhere, justified on sober reflection? And if so, what does it mean for giving, especially effective giving? This is the subject of two blog posts I recently published on Effektiv Spenden, the German-language platform for effective giving, here and here. The following is an adaptation and expansion of those blog posts. (Please note that some of the links are to German language content.)

In the first part, I shed some light on why it is important to work on democracy, what democracy actually is, and what we know about measures to defend and strengthen democracy. In the second part, I share some initial thoughts on where donations can be put to good use in Germany (and Europe) today.

Why defend democracy?

This question may seem strange at first. But with an effective giving mindset, it cannot be dismissed out of hand, as we always want to work on and give to causes that are at least in the top 10-20% (of importance, neglectedness, tractability, and perhaps – as we will argue further below – urgency).

So, first, why might defending democracy be a particularly important issue at any time, or at least at most times? We can keep this short: To the best of best knowledge (liberal) democracy – on average, in most places, at most times – outperforms less democratic models of governance quite clearly on almost all key dimensions of civil human rights (aka: justice) and social human rights (aka: welfare). A good overview can be found here

Translated into an effective altruist’s mindset and language this means: High-performing liberal democracies are also – implicitly subsumed in the above – significantly more likely to achieve most of the good outcomes that effective altruists seek, be it alleviating extreme poverty or mitigating existential risks such as engineered pandemics or AI gone rogue. Or, to use e.g. Toby Ord’s line of reasoning, one could argue that the potential loss of liberal democracy to a more autocratic form of governance is a key ‘risk factor’, while maintaining or achieving a high performing level of liberal democracy is a key ‘security factor’ [see: The Precipice, p. 177 ff.]. In internal conversations, we therefore often half-jokingly refer to the threat to liberal democracy as ‘the mother of all risks’.

Why then, secondly, does defence of democracy seem particularly important right now? The answer is somewhat less straightforward, and I use the example of Germany to illustrate:

First there are trends: If you check the search term „democracy“ on Google Trends (Germany) over the past five years, it becomes obvious that this is not the first time, even recently, that the threat to democracy has been in the spotlight. But the anxiety is unusually intense and will likely last longer than before as the extent of the anti-democratic threat is now, finally, being appreciated in full and by much of the German mainstream. (As a sidenote: Germany is one of the few countries that – for obvious historical reasons – was long thought by many to be almost immune to extremist threats – and perhaps this will even prove to be true. But right now, the reckoning with a newly worrying reality is unexpected and very painful to many.)

So, Fascism 2.0 seems to be gaining popularity and influence at an extent not seen since the founding of modern Germany. And unlike in the past, it is no longer – from a German point of view – „the others“, such as the US or India, Hungary, Turkey and – most recently and particularly disturbing for Germans – even the Netherlands, whose democracies are being attacked by mostly ethno-social-nationalist parties and populists with clearly illiberal and autocratic aims.

Second there are deadlines: Besides the crucial US presidential elections (and others), the European Parliament will be elected in June and current polls predict a massive shift to the right. In Germany, the German state parliaments of Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia follow in September 2024 and the German federal parliament in 2025. German polls see the right-wing extremist party AfD in the lead in all three German federal states. One scenario that is no longer inconceivable is that a right-wing extremist like Björn Höcke, who rarely misses an opportunity to express his contempt for large parts of humanity as well as for democracy, could become prime minister of Thuringia. 

What is democracy?

For many people, democracy is a largely vague and abstract concept. Many seem to think of it like they think of electricity, which just comes out of the socket without much thought or effort. The most common spontaneous definition of democracy is: “We go vote”. 

Yet the defence of democracy is the most complex issue that I personally and we at Effektiv Spenden have dealt with in recent years. Why is that?

The direct translation from ancient Greek is still easy: democracy means „rule by the people„. However, a precise and globally recognised definition of modern democracy is difficult: constitutions and political practice show great differences in the composition and weighting of democratic principles, institutions, and processes.

For potential donors, this constitutes a considerable dilemma: if there is no standardised map of democratic elements, it is naturally all the more difficult to identify, compare and evaluate measures to preserve democracy. More on this later.

The most ambitious project for defining and empirically measuring democracy can be found at the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Currently, with the help of around 3,700 experts worldwide, around 470 democracy indicators in five areas are collected, weighted, and aggregated, and made comparable and interpretable over long periods of time. In addition, V-Dem publishes an excellent annual Democracy Report on the state and trends of forms of government around the world. (Here’s the current 2024 report.)

However, other renowned institutions also contribute to a sober and objective view of the political world with their publications, such as Freedom House, the EIU Democracy Index or Polity.

And in order to make all of this accessible to the general public – especially donors – a comprehensive democracy portal has been available on the well-known data platform Our World in Data since 2022: largely financed by people we have supported as part of our donation advisory service. The Democracy Data Explorer in particular now leaves little to be desired in terms of transparency.

What is the state of democracy?

The results of all these studies have one thing in common: they have been sobering for years. From a global perspective, the worldwide spread and deepening of democracy came to an end around the year 2000 and went into reverse. This turn of the tide accelerated from 2015: A mostly creeping, sometimes rapid relapse into illiberal or autocratic forms of government set in.

According to the „Regimes of the World“ data set, in 2004 approx. 17% of the world’s population lived in a highly developed „liberal democracy“, as we have appreciated in Germany for many years; a further approx. 36% still lived in a so-called „electoral democracy“, a form of democracy in which various structures, processes and rights that we take for granted only exist to a limited extent. Taken together, this means that 53% of the world’s population lives under largely democratic conditions.

In 2022, these shares of the global population were only 13% („liberal“) and 16% („electoral“), i.e. 29% in total – a huge decline. In a period of just 16 years, more than a quarter of the world’s population has thus ended up in an „electoral autocracy“ (formally, elections are still held in this form of government, but not in a free and fair manner, and many other components of democracy are non-existent or very weak). Or they even live in a „closed autocracy“ (i.e. an outright dictatorship).

At the same time, there has been a gradual but noticeable deterioration in various components of democracy in many liberal democracies over the last 10 years. This is also the case in Germany. In view of current developments, it is to be feared that this trend could continue or even accelerate in the coming years. The Cologne-based lawyer and politician Gerhart Baum, born in Dresden in 1932, member of the FDP (Germany’s liberal democratic party), can look back on a wealth of experience in the defence of democracy – both personally and in office – that is almost unique in Germany. He categorises the current developments very aptly here (in German, please use English subtitles which hopefully are available in your context.)

What do we know about measures to defend and strengthen democracy?

The dilemma for donors does not lie in the mapping and measuring of the state of democracy. Together with our research partners, we are now well positioned in this regard.

The great challenge lies in the incomparably poorer transparency about the nature and effectiveness of the actions taken by pro-democracy organisations around to defend and advance democracy.

Of course, there are serious contributions that categorize such measures. From time to time, action plans are drawn up with prioritized actions. Here are some examples:

All of this is helpful and important. However, concrete assessments, explanations and (above all) evaluations of the expected impact, i.e. the effectiveness of the respective measures, are almost impossible to find. Even after intensive research, including an extensive expert survey in 2021, we have not been able to create even a fraction of the transparency that is possible, for example, in the field of global health & development through research by experts such as GiveWell. For this reason, it is simply inconceivable to date that we will be able to identify comparably robust and reliably documented giving recommendations.

To change this extraordinarily unsatisfactory, even dangerous situation, we have been committed since 2021 to creating a non-profit international evaluation think tank to work on the topic of „Defending Democracy„. We succeeded in raising the funds required for the first few years. With the ongoing establishment of Power for Democracies under the leadership of Markus N. Beeko, the former Secretary General of Amnesty International in Germany, such an institution has recently become a reality. More on this on Effektiv Spenden when the first concrete recommendations are available.

How do we view donation recommendations?

The previous explanations should have made it clear that we are not yet able to make donation recommendations in the cause area of „Defending democracy“ that meet our standards of demonstrable effectiveness in our other cause areas. In fact, we still have a long way to go to reach this level of quality.

The key challenge in this field is tractability. While we are fairly confident that the scale of the problem – and therefore its importance – is very significant and that the field is also very neglected (as many donors don’t even understand at a basic level that philanthropy might be needed to defend democracy at all), there are many uncertainties about tractability.

If these three variables were all we had to take into account, we might have decided not to spring into action, at least not with a short-term perspective on top of a long-term perspective (which we are also supporting work on, via Power for Democracies). However, there is a fourth variable that we regularly check and that can, and in this case did, justify action even when the other three are not entirely conclusive, and that is: urgency.

We are all familiar with this variable from the discussion about so-called „tipping points“ in climate science: exceeding certain threshold values can trigger chain reactions, some irreversible over long periods of time, which lead to an escalation of the crisis for an unforeseeable period of time. Implementing or promoting one and the same measure now may therefore be much more effective than in the future, because by then it could simply be too late for (any) effective measures.

The same applies in certain areas of the defence of democracy: The loss of a democratically consolidated political majority to an autocratically minded political group does not necessarily have to lead to the irreversible dismantling of democracy. As the examples of Brazil and Poland have shown recently, a return to more democratic – albeit „severely weakened“ – conditions is not impossible. It just isn’t highly likely and how fast, if at all, democracy can be restored to prior levels of performance is an ongoing debate amongst political practitioners and scientists.

So we accept that there is a significant risk of falling under autocratic rule for an extended period, perhaps a very long period, through regular elections: The NSDAP, as well as Vladimir Putin and many other anti-democratic parties and individuals, were initially brought to power through ‘normal’ democratic elections – despite their aggressively and publicly stated anti-democratic intentions. And all the while, the NSDAP, Putin, and all the others have been systematically underestimated by the defenders of democracy, time and again, with disastrous consequences.

Unfortunately, a heightened sense of urgency seems very justified.

What can we do today?

Through our donor advisory work over the past five years, we have gained insight into a wide range of measures and NGOs, particularly in the US and Germany, and have built up a network of competent discussion partners. The picture is far from complete, and all the caveats outlined above do apply. 

Due to the urgency of the topic and despite the high level of uncertainty, as explained, I would first like to share our thoughts on where donations can be used sensibly to strengthen democracy in the short-term and in Germany (with some outreach to European neighbours)

We know the founders and/or leaders of these organisations personally. We have been in dialogue with some of them for years. We believe that the work they are doing is very effective in supporting the resilience of our democracy, even in the short term. And all of the organisations listed are currently in need of significant additional funding to carry out their work on the scale that is urgently required.

Independent, investigative journalism: CORRECTIV – Recherchen für die Gesellschaft gGmbH 

Many people are currently getting to know CORRECTIV for the first time. This organisation plays a leading role in German non-profit investigative journalism. Its mission is to strengthen democracy and since its foundation in 2014, CORRECTIV has been repeatedly recognised for its journalistic work. CORRECTIV is currently focussing on the New Right and the German elections in 2024 and 2025.

Democratic shaping of progress: Democracy Foundation campact

Many Germans are already familiar with the name campact: As a citizens‘ movement primarily involved in public campaigns to strengthen democracy and human rights and to protect the climate and nature that over 2,5 million people associate with.

The Democracy Foundation campact, in turn, pools the special expertise and many years of experience of the citizens‘ movement and concentrates it on finding and supporting promising projects that promote democracy. In this way, it enables these projects to become even more successful and grow. It also supports activities and NGOs in other European countries.

Democratic participation in the digital world: HateAid gGmbH 

HateAid was founded at the end of 2018 to advise and defend victims of online hate and digital violence. Lawsuits on behalf of German public figures such as Renate Künast or Igor Levitt quickly led to greater publicity. HateAid is now also an important voice in federal and EU politics when it comes to shaping and enforcing laws against digital violence and for peace, law and order in the digital space.

This is an initial, provisional list that we will update the list above in the coming weeks.

How do I find similar charities in other countries?

We haven’t worked specifically on other European countries. However, I strongly believe that just as aspiring autocrats work with somewhat uniform „autocratization playbooks“, a lot of strategic thinking and best practices can be shared and transferred across many countries among defenders of democracies. I am happy to share my views on this in a private conversation.

About the author

Avatar von Stephan Schwahlen

Senior Advisor Philanthropy

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