Since the early 2000s, aid spending on electoral assistance programmes around the world has increased dramatically, but in newly democratising countries, electoral contests are often (though not always) plagued by procedural flaws, intimidation, corruption, and all sorts of irregularities. Have donor investments had an impact on the quality of elections? How could aid effectiveness be improved?

In this U4 Issue, we undertake a systematic evaluation of the best available evidence to identify lessons learned and suggest how practitioners may develop strategies to improve electoral integrity. In particular, we review elections over time and across countries using panel data on electoral integrity and aid disbursements allocated specifically to improve electoral integrity. Our sample includes 502 national elections in 126 countries during 2002–15, covering (virtually) allnational elections that took place in allaid recipients over this time period. To measure electoral integrity for the period 2002–15, we find that the best balance between detail and coverage is achieved by the indicators of electoral conduct published by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project (Coppedge et al. 2016). Our analysis of the period 2002–15 provides an original contribution to the evidence base around election aid and integrity. Within our setup, we explore three policy-relevant questions: (1) Have electoral assistance programmes improved electoral integrity? If so, in which contexts has democracy promotion proved most effective? (2) How sustainable are the effects of election-support aid? (3) Are certain forms of electoral misconduct more responsive than others to donor-funded interventions? In providing systematic, evidence-based answers to these questions, we seek to stimulate new thinking around general approaches to building integrity in elections.

Have electoral assistance programmes improved electoral integrity?

Our analysis indicates that aid does help improve electoral integrity. However, for policymakers it is important to understand the size of the marginal gains that can be expected from increasing election-support ODA. An intuitive way to interpret the results is to consider the impact of each additional dollar spent. The analysis presented in Figure 3 suggests that the aid-integrity relationship is non-linear: the effect of the marginal dollar spent decreases as the volume of aid increases. For countries that receive little election aid to start with, the effect of each new dollar spent is quite high. This effect, however, declines as the country receives more aid (i.e., more election support) and tends to flatten out thereafter. For an aid recipient receiving the average volume of election-support an additional $1 million spent in an election year (moving from $5.6 million to $6.6 million in annual receipts for election support) is followed by an improvement in electoral quality equal to just 0.66% of the average variation (i.e., standard deviation) in integrity levels across all aid recipients. In other words, the average investment in electoral assistance does make an appreciable impact, but the magnitude of this improvement is small if measured relative to the total observed variation in the quality of elections across developing countries. Similarly, an additional $1 million spent in the year preceding an election leads to an increase in integrity equal to 0.63% of this average deviation. Consistent with this finding, donor-funded electoral assistance explains only 11% of the total variation in electoral integrity over time, which means that the reason why some developing countries have better elections than others is not (primarily) the fact that they receive more aid for this purpose.

A further analysis suggests that to improve the effectiveness of aid, donors should consider targeting electoral assistance programmes to low-income societies. This does not mean that the increase in overall aid effectiveness in this area from reallocating aid to lower-income countries will be automatic. We present here the average gain. Yet, the results indicate that the lower a country’s income levels, the more likely it is to benefit from election support programmes. At higher levels of income, broader societal transformations are likely to be a more consequential driver of overall electoral quality, so that the gain from receiving donor-funded election support is much smaller. It goes without saying that considerations of reallocation to low-income societies should also be based on a thorough review of country-specific political and social factors that may potentially hinder the effectiveness of election-aid support.

How sustainable are the effects of election-support aid?

Another important test we undertake is to try to understand the sustainability of support to electoral integrity. In our analysis, therefore, we test the extent to which gains in integrity in one election carry over to the next one. We assess that only about 32% of the integrity level achieved in a given contest is “automatically” carried over to the next contest.1115a352cab2 Of course, elections may be spaced several years apart and a number of intervening events might have an impact on the quality of the subsequent election. Still, the fact that integrity norms in developing countries are not very “sticky” raises important questions about the sustainability of donor-funded reforms. It appears difficult for aid recipients to entrench and institutionalise the norms and processes established by donor agencies. In other words, the positive outcomes of donor-funded election support are rather ephemeral.

Donor-funded electoral assistance does work. However, its impact on the integrity standards of aid recipients is quite small and short-lived. In other words, the small positive gains do not sustain very well across electoral cycles. In part, donors may need to accept that a short-term impact merits the investments in integrity. At the same time, it would seem wise to explore the question of whether there are steps that donors can take to ensure greater sustainability of integrity gains. We suggest making more selective choices about the kinds of interventions to pursue based on a close understanding of the conditions of the country in which these interventions will take place. In particular, it requires an understanding of how the informal nature of (electoral) politics presents certain implementation constraints that affect sustainability in development settings

Are certain forms of electoral misconduct more responsive than others to donor-funded interventions?

Another question that should be of concern to donor agencies is which particular aspects of electoral integrity are most amenable to donor interventions. An answer to this question is important because targeting the types of misconduct that are likely to be more responsive to donor interventions may improve the overall cost-effectiveness of electoral assistance programmes. Although they are not conclusive, the results suggest that different types of electoral malpractice are variably responsive or resistant to aid-funded electoral assistance programmes. This means, on the one hand, that targeting the more amenable forms of misconduct, such as vote-counting irregularities and ballot stuffing, may be more cost-effective on average than other interventions. On the other hand, much more can be done to develop imaginative (and more effective) approaches to addressing the more intractable forms of misconduct, such as electoral violence, boycotts, manipulation of the voter registry, and vote buying.

  1. These results are robust to correcting for dynamic panel bias. The 2SLS (two-stage least squares) results are available upon request.