Central to the approach of USAID’s Democracy Center is the premise that without a strong legal framework and institutions that promote democracy and civil society in place, development efforts will not be sustainable over time without continued donor assistance. Although building these institutions are indeed of fundamental importance, once built, how do citizens and their local democratic and civil institutions affect real change?  

Mendez England & Associates (ME&A) has long been a proponent of regional and local economic development strategic planning (LED) as a central approach to development, and is currently working on refined models of its application, both internationally and domestically. LED can provide an important link between democracy, community development and economic growth initiatives, particularly in the implementation of their development objectives.  Borrowing from existing models of economic development, particularly those of the World Bank and successful models carried out in the US and other countries, ME&A is incorporating best practices of each into a flexible approach that can be applied in many developing countries. 

To begin, ME&A bases its approach on the premise that regional economies are more natural than national models, and therefore should be the focus of USAID country strategies due to the fact that regional (local) economies are the primary engines of economic activity.  Focusing development strategies on these regions will yield the most benefit from limited resource allocation.  According to urbanist Jane Jacobs, "A national economy is the sum of a nation's city economies and the past and current secondary effects of city economies upon the economies of towns, villages and wildernesses."  In many cases, it is at this level of local regions — of cities, towns, and villages — that participatory, citizen-based, bottom-up strategies can be most effectively implemented.

The connection between economic growth, democratic governance and community development is driven by  “how” regional and local strategies are applied, and the selection of institutions and individuals involved in the process. Here are four key factors that support this theory:

1.  Objectives related to democracy and civil society can be realized through the participatory nature of the LED process, which is designed into the program. All relevant stakeholders are involved in setting objectives, development priorities, and measuring results.  Advocacy for good governance can and should be a prominent part of this bottom-up process.

2.  Community development objectives are taken into account by expanding the thrust of the strategic process into areas beyond purely business and economic ones, such as health, education, transportation, and public utilities—clean water and sanitation systems—and others related to the environment and the quality of  life.  The City Alliance program model of a City Development Strategy (CDS) is one such example.

3.  Development strategies should be based on the real economy of the region, with accurate delineation of the region geographically, an accurate profile of assets and challenges, and a competitive analysis of the economic, governmental and social sectors of the economy. These regions are essentially “organic,” and rarely follow political jurisdictional lines, so must often include collaboration with multiple political jurisdictions, or organizations that span these jurisdictions.

4.  Strategies should be holistic and include as many of the key institutions of the region as possible, both public and private, in partnerships—the classic public-private partnership writ large.  Targeted developmental assistance, as needed, can be focused on institutional reform and human resource development utilizing tested Human and Institutional Capacity Building (HICD) approaches.

Current approaches of donor aid programs, including those of USAID, are often driven by analyses of national economies and their perceived needs.  National governments, their policies and resource allocations are of course important, and provide the context or framework for regional and local development.  Although a more direct and fruitful approach for a democratic country with a market economy focuses on key regional economies that are normally, but not always, on a sub-national level, and city-centered. ME&A’s proven approach suggests that more emphasis should be placed on regional economic analysis, which will inevitably lead to the creation of the right participatory solutions to meet the real challenge of a nation and its people.