Democracy supporters face tough times. Authoritarian reversals across North and sub‐Saharan Africa, combined with a lack of progress in the Middle East and Central Asia, have dampened funders’ enthusiasm for the endeavour. To better understand these setbacks, we identify ten challenges in democracy support. These are the challenges of: (i) difficult cases; (ii) authoritarian backlash; (iii) adapting to context; (iv) confronting politics; (v) managing uncertainty; (vi) unintended side‐effects; (vii) a tight funding environment; (viii) defining and demonstrating success; (ix) competing priorities; and – exacerbating all the rest, (x) a limited evidence base. While much has been written about the need for more coordinated and politically intelligent engagement to meet these challenges, far less has been said about the need to improve our evidence‐base and the way in which policy‐oriented research is produced. We identify several strategies that policy makers and practitioners can use to advance the field. All require better bridges between research, policy and practice, so we offer concrete suggestions about how such bridges can be built.
Agencies that fund democracy support need to be more realistic about what these programmes can achieve, and the time frame in which they can achieve it.
The paucity of the evidence base underpinning democracy support exacerbates the other nine challenges we identify, but a better evidence base can be built if researchers collaborate more often with the practitioners who design and deliver democracy support.
Researchers and practitioners should be more open – and more systematic – in the way that data about democracy support is produced, analysed and shared. This will be hard in some areas, such as political party support, and in highly repressive contexts where beneficiaries may be at risk, but longer‐term collaborations can make it feasible.
Governments seeking to make democracy support more effective should design funding mechanisms in a way that incentivises research at the programme level and supports the development of new analytical tools that translate evidence about past programmes into concrete recommendations for the future.