Thursday, March 11, 2010

One of my greatest satisfactions since leaving the U.S. Congress in 1993 has been the opportunity to spend nine years on the board of directors of the National Endowment for Democracy, eight as NED’s chairman. You can imagine my disappointment when I read the call for eliminating funding for NED on these pages (“Busting the well-endowed,” Feb. 25). Shikha Dalmia argues that NED is “dogged by controversy” and that its rationale is ancient history. Nothing could be further from the truth.

NED’s worldwide efforts supporting grass-roots democrats who are striving to secure the type of basic rights Ms. Dalmia can take for granted are hardly controversial, having earned NED the kind of bipartisan support that is nearly unheard of in Washington today. While it is true that there once were efforts to put an end to congressional support for NED, such efforts have not survived the reality check provided by NED’s substantial achievements over the years.

NED has enjoyed the strong support of every U.S. president since its founding during the administration of Ronald Reagan, who helped launch this bipartisan initiative by endorsing it in his famous “ash heap of history” speech before the British Parliament. So what accounts for this unusually robust bipartisan support? Why do so many in Washington and around the world feel so strongly about the value of the National Endowment for Democracy and its mission?

The first reason is obvious. NED has a truly remarkable track record of support for democratic groups in every corner of the world that have effected real change in their societies. There are well-known examples like NED’s early support for the Polish Solidarity trade union and Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 movement, whose leaders, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, each became the democratically elected president of his country. Chile, the Philippines, South Africa, Nigeria, Serbia and Ukraine are all good examples (and this list is not exhaustive) of nations where support from NED aided democratic activists and movements that shifted their countries from the “not free” to the “free” category in Freedom House’s annual survey called “Freedom in the World.”

There are many lesser-known successes as well. One NED grantee was in the spotlight on Sunday night at the Academy Awards when “Burma VJ,” a film about the gutsy video journalists of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) who secretly filmed the events of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, was up for best documentary feature. With support from NED since 1992, DVB has operated both shortwave radio and satellite TV stations based on the Thai-Burma border, broadcast via Norway, to provide independent news to the Burmese people. (Readers can learn more about DVB and other NED funded projects at

Beyond its list of success stories, NED also is admired for its cost-effectiveness, making close to 1,300 grants in 2009 in nearly 90 countries with a budget of $115 million and overhead costs far below that of any federal agency. NED’s independence from the government is another asset. Protected from the day-to-day pressures of foreign policy that often prevent the government from putting human rights and democracy front and center, NED can give the kind of modest but sustained assistance that sends a consistent message of solidarity from the American people to those struggling on the front lines of some of the world’s most difficult situations, including Sudan, North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cuba. This type of support earns the United States natural allies after democratic breakthroughs are achieved.

Ms. Dalmia makes so many inaccurate and absurd arguments in her column that it would be hard to answer them all here. Take the example of her contention that communism has “evaporated” and tell that to the defectors who have risked everything to escape the hell on earth that is nuclear-armed North Korea, where three generations of your family can be imprisoned in labor camps for the smallest offense against the regime. NED support has enabled many of these defectors to establish publications and radio stations, similar to DVB, that debunk the regime’s propaganda and show average North Koreans what life outside their deprived and backward country is really like. Similar news that democracy is spreading “like wildfire” across the states of the former Soviet Union must be grimly amusing to the dwindling number of independent Russian journalists who continue to report on human rights abuses in the Caucasus despite the assassination of brave colleagues like Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemerova. One also could point to the many authoritarian regimes that survive in Central Asia, Belarus and Moldova, not to mention the sorry state of democracy in Russia.

Ms. Dalmia makes the ridiculous assertion that Congress, which funds NED, has little control over the endowment, which in turn is “used by sitting presidents to do things Congress wouldn’t approve.” But how is that possible if NED is on an annual appropriation? The reality is that Congress requires NED to comply with multiple layers of oversight, including audits by the Government Accountability Office and the Department of State’s inspector general, compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, and annual independent financial audits.

The last recorded vote (1997) on funding for NED in the U.S. Senate passed 72-27. In honor of its 20th anniversary, the House and Senate passed a concurrent resolution calling for continued support of NED’s vital work, commending the endowment for its “significant contributions to the efforts of democratic activists to achieve freedom and self-governance around the world,” noting that NED’s work had “enhanced the national security interests of the United States and advanced democratic ideals and values throughout the world.” This highly controversial legislation passed the Senate unanimously on a voice vote and squeaked out a victory in the House of Representatives with 391 ayes and one no.

Congress has closely monitored the work of NED over the years, and it should be apparent to anyone that it likes what it sees. To use the words of Ms. Dalmia, support for the National Endowment for Democracy is a “no-brainer.”

Former Rep. Vin Weber is managing partner of Clark and Weinstock. He served as chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy from 2000 to 2008.

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