How Foreign Aid Can Foster Democratization in Authoritarian Regimes


  • An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. I thank Barbara Geddes, Jeffrey B. Lewis, Yuch Kono, Kevin Morrison, Jennifer Tobin, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions. I am grateful to Jessica Weeks and Xun Cao for sharing data. I gratefully acknowledge financial support for this research from the UCLA Graduate Division and the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University. All errors remain my own.

Joseph Wright is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Pennsylvania State University, Pond Lab, University Park, PA 16802 (


Donors in recent years have made some foreign aid conditional on progress toward democracy. This study investigates whether and how such conditionality works in practice. The promise of higher aid if the country democratizes only provides an incentive for democratization for political leaders who expect to remain in office after democratization occurs. I show that dictators with large distributional coalitions, who have a good chance of winning fair elections, tend to respond to aid by democratizing. In contrast, aid helps dictators with the smallest distributional coalitions hang on to power. I present a model that shows a dictator's decision calculus, given different a priori support coalitions and varying degrees of aid conditionality, and test the model implications with data from 190 authoritarian regimes in 101 countries from 1960 to 2002.