Seema Shah argues for putting the lived experiences of historically marginalised communities at the centre of democracy measurement. By doing so, she says, we can meaningfully reshape our understanding of democracy as a practice
Rethinking how we measure and evaluate democratic performance is vital to reversing a longstanding negative trend in global democracy. We must confront the past, including democracy’s counter-intuitively intrinsic inequality. This is key to revitalising institutions in a way that allows democratic practice to live up to its potential.
In the global democracy assessment space, teams like the one I lead at International IDEA compete to provide the most rigorous, far-reaching and understandable set of democracy measurements in the world. Alexander Hudson explains how critical these indicators are, providing important benchmarks for democratic growth and decline to policymakers, governments, international organisations, and journalists.
Yet in so many ways, the core of what these datasets measure and help assess are largely the same. This redundancy is no doubt at least partially a product of wealthy donors’ prioritisation of liberal democracy as an ideal. It is compounded by how the measures are calculated. As Adam Przeworksi recently stated, reliance on expert coders runs the risk of measuring little other than those experts’ biases.
But if that is the case, and quantitative measurements continue to be necessary for democracy assessment, shouldn’t we rethink exactly what we are measuring and how we are measuring it?
Democracy assessment indices do not typically measure ordinary people’s evaluations of the state of democracy. Instead, other specialised 'barometers' often take on this task. See, for example, Afrobarometer, Eurobarometer, Asian Barometer, and Latinobarometro. Surveys of public perceptions on a range of issues also exist, including, but not limited to democracy. The problem is, however, that these do not systematically make it into overall democracy assessments or onto policymakers’ desks. This means that policymakers and others do not consistently prioritise or consider lived experiences as they make decisions about democracy and human rights-related funding and interventions.
Policymakers and others do not consistently prioritise or consider lived experiences as they make decisions about democracy
Arguably, though, those lived experiences are at the core of democracy. This idea is brought to life by Michael Hanchard’s recent post exploring the 'problem' of democracy. He sees it as 'a mode of political community with prospects, rather than guarantees of equality'. Similarly, Anna Drake explains how democracy's structures are fundamentally flawed, rooted in exclusionary conceptions of power that favour certain communities.
We can find a related argument in critiques of so-called neocolonial institutions. Take the postcolonial states of Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those countries' leaders, Jomo Kenyatta and Joseph Mobutu respectively, took power at, or soon after, independence. The institutions they inherited were designed and blessed by the former colonial rulers for their own continued benefit. Unless postcolonial states fundamentally redesign their institutions to reflect the needs of the people living in them, they cannot be expected to reflect or respond to those people's needs. They cannot be democratic.
For democracy to live up to its promise, democracy assessment organisations must join other experts to dig deep into the reality of democratic practice. Nikole Hannah-Jones details the ways in which American democracy is foundationally rooted in systematic and violent inequality. Michael Hanchard reminds us that exclusion and inequality are part and parcel of the very origins of democratic models. Confronting this reality could be key to reversing the clear and steep decline of democracy around the world.
Contemporary indicators could help identify the roots of many of democracy’s ills, and generate innovative, responsive solutions
It could take generations to redesign democratic institutions, but the measurement of democracy could do a better job of revealing these fundamental flaws. Contemporary indicators that measure the world as it really is and that better reflect the most marginalised sectors of society could help identify the roots of many of democracy’s ills, and generate more innovative and responsive solutions.
Instead of measuring the strength of a legal framework for elections, for example, why not measure how far that framework aligns with people’s demands regarding electoral credibility? And when measuring how representative governments are, should we also evaluate citizens' options for choosing their leaders outside of elections?
To measure gender equality in politics, we generally count the number of women in parliament. Instead, why not measure the extent to which sexist attitudes have changed within and across societies?
To measure gender equality, we count the number of women in parliament. Instead, why not measure the degree to which sexist attitudes have changed?
Is there a better way to measure universal suffrage than simply counting laws that guarantee the equal right to vote? Could indicators of universal suffrage that measure the extent to which certain groups (minorities, people with disabilities, women, and other communities pushed to the periphery of mainstream discourse) can actually exercise that right capture the situation better? And instead of measuring whether or not citizens’ assemblies exist, why not measure how representative they are, and who is leading them?
It is, of course, a costly, difficult and time-consuming process to find and use this kind of data. But it is surely time to start this hard work.
Changing the lens of measurement in these ways could reveal some uncomfortable truths about the profound gap between what democracy promises and what it actually delivers. But therein lies the beauty of democracy – its openness and capacity for self-correction provide hope that confronting those ugly truths will aid democracy’s reconstruction.
If we change what we measure, we have the power to change the story of democracy and to own it, shape it, and tell it collectively – and truthfully.