The most effective, sustainable way to advocate democracy is to help those moderates and modernizers on the inside build democratic institutions such as political parties, an independent judiciary, a free media, a modern education system, a civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and a private sector.

That’s a key piece of Joe Biden’s advice in his cogent Washington Monthly essay. This theme was echoed in many of the other pieces ? you need to generously fund the elements of civil society that make the engine of democracy run smoothly.

It would seem churlish to disagree with such pragmatic and reasonable advice. So let me sound churlish ? this sort of activity has the potential to be counterproductive to democracy promotion.

Exhibit A is Russia. For her book Building Democracy in Contemporary Russia: Western Support for Grassroots Organizations, political scientist Sarah Henderson did extensive fieldwork looking at Russian civil society that received funding from USAID, the Soros Foundation, or other Western sources (click here for a concise review of the book).

What Henderson found was disturbing. Western funding of the NGO community in Russia has led to perverse tradeoffs in the creation of a democratic civil society. When these civic organizations become more dependent upon foreign material resources, their ability to mobilize or even connect with their alleged constituents decreased. Organizations that received western funding became too wrapped up in pleasing their donors with monthly reports and snazzy conferences ? in the process, they triggered distrust among Russians suspicious of their funding sources.

If you think about how this would/will play out in the Arab world, things don’t look great. Most Arab regimes function as rentier states ? governments that don’t need to ask much of their citizery because of oil revenues and the like. Boosting democracy aid to non-governmental elements in the region has the potential to cause rentier governments to persist with a different souce of funding.

Furthermore, Arab distrust of the United States has a long and distinguished pedigree that pre-dates the current Bush administration ? and as Marc points out, the distrust has only increased in recent years.

I’m not saying that Biden’s suggestion of funding civil society is worthless ? but it’s not even close to the magic bullet that many liberals believe it to be.