Why Is Democracy Performing So Poorly?

Essay by Francis Fukuyama in the Journal of Democracy: “The Journal of Democracy published its inaugural issue a bit past the midpoint of what Samuel P. Huntington labeled the “third wave” of democratization, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just before the breakup of the former Soviet Union. The transitions in Southern Europe and most of those in Latin America had already happened, and Eastern Europe was moving at dizzying speed away from communism, while the democratic transitions in sub-Saharan Africa and the former USSR were just getting underway. Overall, there has been remarkable worldwide progress in democratization over a period of almost 45 years, raising the number of electoral democracies from about 35 in 1970 to well over 110 in 2014.
But as Larry Diamond has pointed out, there has been a democratic recession since 2006, with a decline in aggregate Freedom House scores every year since then. The year 2014 has not been good for democracy, with two big authoritarian powers, Russia and China, on the move at either end of Eurasia. The “Arab Spring” of 2011, which raised expectations that the Arab exception to the third wave might end, has degenerated into renewed dictatorship in the case of Egypt, and into anarchy in Libya, Yemen, and also Syria, which along with Iraq has seen the emergence of a new radical Islamist movement, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
It is hard to know whether we are experiencing a momentary setback in a general movement toward greater democracy around the world, similar to a stock-market correction, or whether the events of this year signal a broader shift in world politics and the rise of serious alternatives to democracy. In either case, it is hard not to feel that the performance of democracies around the world has been deficient in recent years. This begins with the most developed and successful democracies, those of the United States and the European Union, which experienced massive economic crises in the late 2000s and seem to be mired in a period of slow growth and stagnating incomes. But a number of newer democracies, from Brazil to Turkey to India, have also been disappointing in their performance in many respects, and subject to their own protest movements.
Spontaneous democratic movements against authoritarian regimes continue to arise out of civil society, from Ukraine and Georgia to Tunisia and Egypt to Hong Kong. But few of these movements have been successful in leading to the establishment of stable, well-functioning democracies. It is worth asking why the performance of democracy around the world has been so disappointing.
In my view, a single important factor lies at the core of many democratic setbacks over the past generation. It has to do with a failure of institutionalization—the fact that state capacity in many new and existing democracies has not kept pace with popular demands for democratic accountability. It is much harder to move from a patrimonial or neopatrimonial state to a modern, impersonal one than it is to move from an authoritarian regime to one that holds regular, free, and fair elections. It is the failure to establish modern, well-governed states that has been the Achilles heel of recent democratic transitions… (More)”

Understanding "New Power"

Article by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms in Harvard Business Review: “We all sense that power is shifting in the world. We see increasing political protest, a crisis in representation and governance, and upstart businesses upending traditional industries. But the nature of this shift tends to be either wildly romanticized or dangerously underestimated.
There are those who cherish giddy visions of a new techno-utopia in which increased connectivity yields instant democratization and prosperity. The corporate and bureaucratic giants will be felled and the crowds coronated, each of us wearing our own 3D-printed crown. There are also those who have seen this all before. Things aren’t really changing that much, they say. Twitter supposedly toppled a dictator in Egypt, but another simply popped up in his place. We gush over the latest sharing-economy start-up, but the most powerful companies and people seem only to get more powerful.
Both views are wrong. They confine us to a narrow debate about technology in which either everything is changing or nothing is. In reality, a much more interesting and complex transformation is just beginning, one driven by a growing tension between two distinct forces: old power and new power.
Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.
New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

The battle and the balancing between old and new power will be a defining feature of society and business in the coming years. In this article, we lay out a simple framework for understanding the underlying dynamics at work and how power is really shifting: who has it, how it is distributed, and where it is heading….”

Stories of Innovative Democracy at Local Level

Special Issue of Field Actions Science Reports published in partnership with CIVICUS, coordinated by Dorothée Guénéheux, Clara Bosco, Agnès Chamayou and Henri Rouillé d’Orfeuil: “This special issue presents many and varied field actions, such as the promotion of the rights of young people, the resolution of the conflicts of agropastoral activities, or the process of participatory decisionmaking on community budgetary allocations, among many others. It addresses projects developed all over the world, on five continents, and covering both the northern and southern hemispheres. The legitimate initial queries and doubts that assailed those who started this publication as regards its feasibility, have been swept away by the enthusiasm and the large number of papers that have been sent in….”


Rethinking Democracy

Dani Rodrik at Project Syndicate: “By many measures, the world has never been more democratic. Virtually every government at least pays lip service to democracy and human rights. Though elections may not be free and fair, massive electoral manipulation is rare and the days when only males, whites, or the rich could vote are long gone. Freedom House’s global surveys show a steady increase from the 1970s in the share of countries that are “free” – a trend that the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington dubbed the “third wave” of democratization….

A true democracy, one that combines majority rule with respect for minority rights, requires two sets of institutions. First, institutions of representation, such as political parties, parliaments, and electoral systems, are needed to elicit popular preferences and turn them into policy action. Second, democracy requires institutions of restraint, such as an independent judiciary and media, to uphold fundamental rights like freedom of speech and prevent governments from abusing their power. Representation without restraint – elections without the rule of law – is a recipe for the tyranny of the majority.

Democracy in this sense – what many call “liberal democracy” – flourished only after the emergence of the nation-state and the popular upheaval and mobilization produced by the Industrial Revolution. So it should come as no surprise that the crisis of liberal democracy that many of its oldest practitioners currently are experiencing is a reflection of the stress under which the nation-state finds itself….

In developing countries, it is more often the institutions of restraint that are failing. Governments that come to power through the ballot box often become corrupt and power-hungry. They replicate the practices of the elitist regimes they replaced, clamping down on the press and civil liberties and emasculating (or capturing) the judiciary. The result has been called “illiberal democracy” or “competitive authoritarianism.” Venezuela, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand are some of the better-known recent examples.

When democracy fails to deliver economically or politically, perhaps it is to be expected that some people will look for authoritarian solutions. And, for many economists, delegating economic policy to technocratic bodies in order to insulate them from the “folly of the masses” almost always is the preferred approach.

Effective institutions of restraint do not emerge overnight; and it might seem like those in power would never want to create them. But if there is some likelihood that I will be voted out of office and that the opposition will take over, such institutions will protect me from others’ abuses tomorrow as much as they protect others from my abuses today. So strong prospects for sustained political competition are a key prerequisite for illiberal democracies to turn into liberal ones over time.

Optimists believe that new technologies and modes of governance will resolve all problems and send democracies centered on the nation-state the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Pessimists fear that today’s liberal democracies will be no match for the external challenges mounted by illiberal states like China and Russia, which are guided only by hardnosed realpolitik. Either way, if democracy is to have a future, it will need to be rethought.”

Assessing Social Value in Open Data Initiatives: A Framework

Paper by Gianluigi Viscusi, Marco Castelli and Carlo Batini in Future Internet Journal: “Open data initiatives are characterized, in several countries, by a great extension of the number of data sets made available for access by public administrations, constituencies, businesses and other actors, such as journalists, international institutions and academics, to mention a few. However, most of the open data sets rely on selection criteria, based on a technology-driven perspective, rather than a focus on the potential public and social value of data to be published. Several experiences and reports confirm this issue, such as those of the Open Data Census. However, there are also relevant best practices. The goal of this paper is to investigate the different dimensions of a framework suitable to support public administrations, as well as constituencies, in assessing and benchmarking the social value of open data initiatives. The framework is tested on three initiatives, referring to three different countries, Italy, the United Kingdom and Tunisia. The countries have been selected to provide a focus on European and Mediterranean countries, considering also the difference in legal frameworks (civic law vs. common law countries)”

How technology is beating corruption

Jim Yong Kim at World Economic Forum: “Good governance is critical for all countries around the world today. When it doesn’t exist, many governments fail to deliver public services effectively, health and education services are often substandard and corruption persists in rich and poor countries alike, choking opportunity and growth. It will be difficult to reduce extreme poverty — let alone end it — without addressing the importance of good governance.
But this is not a hopeless situation. In fact, a new wave of progress on governance suggests we may be on the threshold of a transformational era. Countries are tapping into some of the most powerful forces in the world today to improve services and transparency. These forces include the spread of information technology and its convergence with grassroots movements for transparency, accountability and citizen empowerment. In some places, this convergence is easing the path to better-performing and more accountable governments.
The Philippines is a good example of a country embracing good governance. During a recent visit, I spoke with President Benigno Aquino about his plans to reduce poverty, create jobs, and ensure that economic growth is inclusive. He talked in great detail about how improving governance is a fundamentally important part of their strategy. The government has opened government data and contract information so citizens can see how their tax money is spent. The Foreign Aid Transparency Hub, launched after Typhoon Yolanda, offers a real-time look at pledges made and money delivered for typhoon recovery. Geo-tagging tools monitor assistance for people affected by the typhoon.
Opening budgets to scrutiny
This type of openness is spreading. Now many countries that once withheld information are opening their data and budgets to public scrutiny.
Late last year, my organization, the World Bank Group, established the Open Budgets Portal, a repository for budget data worldwide. So far, 13 countries have posted their entire public spending datasets online — including Togo, the first fragile state to do so.
In 2011, we helped Moldova become the first country in central Europe to launch an open data portal and put its expenditures online. Now the public and media can access more than 700 datasets, and are asking for more.
The original epicenter of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, recently passed a new constitution and is developing the first open budget data portal in the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia has taken steps towards citizen engagement by developing a citizens’ budget and civil society-led platforms such as Marsoum41, to support freedom of information requests, including via mobile.
Using technology to improve services
Countries also are tapping into technology to improve public and private services. Estonia is famous for building an information technology infrastructure that has permitted widespread use of electronic services — everything from filing taxes online to filling doctors’ drug prescriptions.
In La Paz, Bolivia, a citizen feedback system known as OnTrack allows residents of one of the city’s marginalized neighbourhoods to send a text message on their mobile phones to provide feedback, make suggestions or report a problem related to public services.
In Pakistan, government departments in Punjab are using smart phones to collect real-time data on the activities of government field staff — including photos and geo-tags — to help reduce absenteeism and lax performance….”

Are the Authoritarians Winning?

Review of several books by Michael Ignatieff in the New York Review of Books: “In the 1930s travelers returned from Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany praising the hearty sense of common purpose they saw there, compared to which their own democracies seemed weak, inefficient, and pusillanimous.
Democracies today are in the middle of a similar period of envy and despondency. Authoritarian competitors are aglow with arrogant confidence. In the 1930s, Westerners went to Russia to admire Stalin’s Moscow subway stations; today they go to China to take the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai, and just as in the 1930s, they return wondering why autocracies can build high-speed railroad lines seemingly overnight, while democracies can take forty years to decide they cannot even begin. The Francis Fukuyama moment—when in 1989 Westerners were told that liberal democracy was the final form toward which all political striving was directed—now looks like a quaint artifact of a vanished unipolar moment.
For the first time since the end of the cold war, the advance of democratic constitutionalism has stopped. The army has staged a coup in Thailand and it’s unclear whether the generals will allow democracy to take root in Burma. For every African state, like Ghana, where democratic institutions seem secure, there is a Mali, a Côte d’Ivoire, and a Zimbabwe, where democracy is in trouble.
In Latin America, democracy has sunk solid roots in Chile, but in Mexico and Colombia it is threatened by violence, while in Argentina it struggles to shake off the dead weight of Peronism. In Brazil, the millions who took to the streets last June to protest corruption seem to have had no impact on the cronyism in Brasília. In the Middle East, democracy has a foothold in Tunisia, but in Syria there is chaos; in Egypt, plebiscitary authoritarianism rules; and in the monarchies, absolutism is ascendant.
In Europe, the policy elites keep insisting that the remedy for their continent’s woes is “more Europe” while a third of their electorate is saying they want less of it. From Hungary to Holland, including in France and the UK, the anti-European right gains ground by opposing the European Union generally and immigration in particular. In Russia the democratic moment of the 1990s now seems as distant as the brief constitutional interlude between 1905 and 1914 under the tsar….
It is not at all apparent that “governance innovation,” a bauble Micklethwait and Wooldridge chase across three continents, watching innovators at work making government more efficient in Chicago, Sacramento, Singapore, and Stockholm, will do the trick. The problem of the liberal state is not that it lacks modern management technique, good software, or different schemes to improve the “interface” between the bureaucrats and the public. By focusing on government innovation, Micklethwait and Wooldridge assume that the problem is improving the efficiency of government. But what is required is both more radical and more traditional: a return to constitutional democracy itself, to courts and regulatory bodies that are freed from the power of money and the influence of the powerful; to legislatures that cease to be circuses and return to holding the executive branch to public account while cooperating on measures for which there is a broad consensus; to elected chief executives who understand that they are not entertainers but leaders….”
Books reviewed:

Reforming Taxation to Promote Growth and Equity

a white paper by Joseph Stiglitz
Roosevelt Institute, 28 pp., May 28, 2014; available at rooseveltinstitute.org

Politics or technology – which will save the world?

David Runciman in the Guardian: (Politics by David Runciman is due from Profile ..It is the first in a series of “Ideas in Profile”) “The most significant revolution of the 21st century so far is not political. It is the information technology revolution. Its transformative effects are everywhere. In many places, rapid technological change stands in stark contrast to the lack of political change. Take the United States. Its political system has hardly changed at all in the past 25 years. Even the moments of apparent transformation – such as the election of Obama in 2008 – have only reinforced how entrenched the established order is: once the excitement died away, Obama was left facing the same constrained political choices. American politics is stuck in a rut. But the lives of American citizens have been revolutionised over the same period. The birth of the web and the development of cheap and efficient devices through which to access it have completely altered the way people connect with each other. Networks of people with shared interests, tastes, concerns, fetishes, prejudices and fears have sprung up in limitless varieties. The information technology revolution has changed the way human beings befriend each other, how they meet, date, communicate, medicate, investigate, negotiate and decide who they want to be and what they want to do. Many aspects of our online world would be unrecognisable to someone who was transplanted here from any point in the 20th century. But the infighting and gridlock in Washington would be all too familiar.
This isn’t just an American story. China hasn’t changed much politically since 4 June 1989, when the massacre in Tiananmen Square snuffed out a would-be revolution and secured the current regime’s hold on power. But China itself has been totally altered since then. Economic growth is a large part of the difference. But so is the revolution in technology. A country of more than a billion people, nearly half of whom still live in the countryside, has been transformed by the mobile phone. There are currently over a billion phones in use in China. Ten years ago, fewer than one in 10 Chinese had access to one; today there is nearly one per person. Individuals whose horizons were until very recently constrained by physical geography – to live and die within a radius of a few miles from your birthplace was not unusual for Chinese peasants even into this century – now have access to the wider world. For the present, though maybe not for much longer, the spread of new technology has helped to stifle the call for greater political change. Who needs a political revolution when you’ve got a technological one?


Technology has the power to make politics seem obsolete. The speed of change leaves government looking slow, cumbersome, unwieldy and often irrelevant. It can also make political thinking look tame by comparison with the big ideas coming out of the tech industry. This doesn’t just apply to far‑out ideas about what will soon be technologically possible: intelligent robots, computer implants in the human brain, virtual reality that is indistinguishable from “real” reality (all things that Ray Kurzweil, co-founder of the Google-sponsored Singularity University, thinks are coming by 2030). In this post-ideological age some of the most exotic political visions are the ones that emerge from discussions about tech. You’ll find more radical libertarians and outright communists among computer scientists than among political scientists. Advances in computing have thrown up fresh ways to think about what it means to own something, what it means to share something and what it means to have a private life at all. These are among the basic questions of modern politics. However, the new answers rarely get expressed in political terms (with the exception of occasional debates about civil rights for robots). More often they are expressions of frustration with politics and sometimes of outright contempt for it. Technology isn’t seen as a way of doing politics better. It’s seen as a way of bypassing politics altogether.
In some circumstances, technology can and should bypass politics. The advent of widespread mobile phone ownership has allowed some of the world’s poorest citizens to wriggle free from the trap of failed government. In countries that lack basic infrastructure – an accessible transport network, a reliable legal system, a usable banking sector – phones enable people to create their own networks of ownership and exchange. In Africa, a grassroots, phone-based banking system has sprung up that for the first time permits money transfers without the physical exchange of cash. This makes it possible for the inhabitants of desperately poor and isolated rural areas to do business outside of their local communities. Technology caused this to happen; government didn’t. For many Africans, phones are an escape route from the constrained existence that bad politics has for so long mired them in.
But it would be a mistake to overstate what phones can do. They won’t rescue anyone from civil war. Africans can use their phones to tell the wider world of the horrors that are still taking place in some parts of the continent – in South Sudan, in Eritrea, in the Niger Delta, in the Central African Republic, in Somalia. Unfortunately the world does not often listen, and nor do the soldiers who are doing the killing. Phones have not changed the basic equation of political security: the people with the guns need a compelling reason not to use them. Technology by itself doesn’t give them that reason. Equally, technology by itself won’t provide the basic infrastructure whose lack it has provided a way around. If there are no functioning roads to get you to market, a phone is a godsend when you have something to sell. But in the long run, you still need the roads. In the end, only politics can rescue you from bad politics…”

Democracy and open data: are the two linked?

Molly Shwartz at R-Street: “Are democracies better at practicing open government than less free societies? To find out, I analyzed the 70 countries profiled in the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Index and compared the rankings against the 2013 Global Democracy Rankings. As a tenet of open government in the digital age, open data practices serve as one indicator of an open government. Overall, there is a strong relationship between democracy and transparency.
Using data collected in October 2013, the top ten countries for openness include the usual bastion-of-democracy suspects: the United Kingdom, the United States, mainland Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
There are, however, some noteworthy exceptions. Germany ranks lower than Russia and China. All three rank well above Lithuania. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Nepal all beat out Belgium. The chart (below) shows the democracy ranking of these same countries from 2008-2013 and highlights the obvious inconsistencies in the correlation between democracy and open data for many countries.
There are many reasons for such inconsistencies. The implementation of open-government efforts – for instance, opening government data sets – often can be imperfect or even misguided. Drilling down to some of the data behind the Open Data Index scores reveals that even countries that score very well, such as the United States, have room for improvement. For example, the judicial branch generally does not publish data and houses most information behind a pay-wall. The status of legislation and amendments introduced by Congress also often are not available in machine-readable form.
As internationally recognized markers of political freedom and technological innovation, open government initiatives are appealing political tools for politicians looking to gain prominence in the global arena, regardless of whether or not they possess a real commitment to democratic principles. In 2012, Russia made a public push to cultivate open government and open data projects that was enthusiastically endorsed by American institutions. In a June 2012 blog post summarizing a Russian “Open Government Ecosystem” workshop at the World Bank, one World Bank consultant professed the opinion that open government innovations “are happening all over Russia, and are starting to have genuine support from the country’s top leaders.”
Given the Russian government’s penchant for corruption, cronyism, violations of press freedom and increasing restrictions on public access to information, the idea that it was ever committed to government accountability and transparency is dubious at best. This was confirmed by Russia’s May 2013 withdrawal of its letter of intent to join the Open Government Partnership. As explained by John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation:

While Russia’s initial commitment to OGP was likely a surprising boon for internal champions of reform, its withdrawal will also serve as a demonstration of the difficulty of making a political commitment to openness there.

Which just goes to show that, while a democratic government does not guarantee open government practices, a government that regularly violates democratic principles may be an impossible environment for implementing open government.
A cursory analysis of the ever-evolving international open data landscape reveals three major takeaways:

  1. Good intentions for government transparency in democratic countries are not always effectively realized.
  2. Politicians will gladly pay lip-service to the idea of open government without backing up words with actions.
  3. The transparency we’ve established can go away quickly without vigilant oversight and enforcement.”

Revolution in the Age of Social Media

Book by Linda Herrera on the “Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet”: “Egypt’s January 25 revolution was triggered by a Facebook page and played out both in virtual spaces and the streets. Social media serves as a space of liberation, but it also functions as an arena where competing forces vie over the minds of the young as they battle over ideas as important as the nature of freedom and the place of the rising generation in the political order. This book provides piercing insights into the ongoing struggles between people and power in the digital age.”