Pitt to promote democracy abroad

By Julie Percha

How much does it cost to help develop political parties around the world? For one Pitt… How much does it cost to help develop political parties around the world? For one Pitt professor, $685,000 sounds about right.

That’s the amount political science professor Scott Morgenstern and his team of researchers recently received as part of a grant sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development, in collaboration with Higher Education for Development.

Established in 1961, USAID is a nonpartisan federal agency aimed at expanding democracy and international development through humanitarian and crisis response, global health programs, education initiatives and other focus areas.

Shally Prasad, a USAID democracy and governance officer, said Morgenstern’s grant is the first of its kind — and long overdue.

“We have provided assistance in the area of political parties for over 20 years, and to date, we’ve never really done a serious look at this sector,” she said.

Prasad said the grant research will help future USAID initiatives by evaluating a country’s readiness for party-building and expanding the framework of its existing parties.

Over the next two years, Morgenstern and his team will take a series of two- to three-week trips to Latin America, where they will work with USAID workers, U.S. embassy officials and local political party representatives. The group will visit seven to 12 developing nations throughout Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, Morgenstern said. Colombia and Peru are two options they’re considering.

“I’d love to go to as many as I can, but there’s just not enough time,” Morgenstern said with a laugh. “We need to take advantage of the regional expertise of our team members.”

Morgenstern said he’s “very excited about this grant because I was able to blend my academic interests with practical applications. I’ve studied [political parties] for a long time from an academic standpoint. Now, we can look at them practically and develop the kind of programs that would help solidify these institutions.”

While abroad, Morgenstern and his team will concentrate on researching democracy and governance issues, particularly, USAID’s efforts to develop political parties as a means of furthering democracy abroad.

Prasad said Morgernstern’s work is “going to be groundbreaking for our team, for our office and for the University of Pittsburgh team, as well.”

Still, Morgenstern won’t be able to come up with one theory that’s best for every country. With different countries come varying political climates, and these need to be considered, he said.

“A big part of what we’re trying to do is assess the needs of the parties to think about what kinds of programs are most effective,” Morgenstern said.

The obstacles to political party development vary by country. They include minority nonrepresentation, religion-based parties and candidates associated with certain ethnic or regional groups rather than with their political identities, he said.

By evaluating USAID’s existing party-building programs, Morgenstern and his research team will develop a framework that will help future programs account for the needs of political parties under different political contexts.

“[USAID is] mostly interested in looking forward. They want to know how to improve programming for the future,” he said.

Morgenstern said he applied for the grant in October of 2008, after he received a request for applications. Morgenstern then assembled a team of researchers, which included Pitt political science professors, non-University academics and a contractor with USAID experience.

While Morgenstern’s expertise is in Latin American politics, he said the team also features specialists in African and Eastern European politics.

“It’s a team that has international experience in many of the regions of the world,” Morgenstern said. “It’s a perfect kind of blend.”

Prasad said she is looking forward to a productive partnership with Morgenstern and his research.

“It stands to make a very high impact on the sector, and we look forward to that,” she said. “Our expectations for the team are great.”