On 24 October 2016, the European Endowment for Democracy hosted an expert seminar with the V-Dem Institute. The event provided a forum for challenging popular assumptions on democracy support, as well as looking at how support programmes could be better targeted in light of the latest research.
Varieties of Democracy is a key project run by the V-Dem Institute, which includes the largest database of its kind capturing democracy in different variations and sub-components. The V-Dem researchers have an ambitious goal of capturing data to assist governments, development agencies, and NGOs with country assessments, in designing more effective programmes, and evaluation of democracy assistance.
The debate was moderated by Richard Youngs, Senior Associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Programme at Carnegie Europe. In his opening remarks, he noted that the “devil is in detail”, and the V-Dem index provides more than just detailed information for in-depth research on democratisation.
Staffan I. Lindberg, Principal Investigator at Varieties of Democracy Institute, gave a presentation on the Institute’s approach towards measuring democracy. As the concept of democracy is highly contestable, the researchers first had to get back to the roots of literature and answer the crucial question, what democracy actually is? As a result of their empirical deliberations, V-Dem seeks to capture seven different concepts of democracy — participatory, consensual, majoritarian, deliberative, and egalitarian, in addition to the more familiar electoral and liberal democracy. The database goes as far back as to year 1900 and encompasses 173 countries world-wide.
These seven varieties of democracy are then broken down into 37 component indices (such as women’s rights, rule of law, freedom of elections), and narrowed further to 350 indicators (journalist harassment, women’s freedom of speech, vote buying etc.).
Half of the indicators are evaluative, the other half which are harder to measure is assessed by local experts, who supply the project with around 63% of raw data. Compared to other established databases, the breadth and depth of indices used by V-Dem is what makes it stand out.
During the discussions, Laza Kekic, one of the main contributors of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, provided a comparative analysis of a few democracy rankings available, including Freedom House Index, Polity and EUI database.
Kekic used some country case studies to provoke a discussion about the state of democracy in the developed world. Faced with various crises and challenges over the last years, democracy has been seriously tested and in many cases suffered major setbacks in the ‘West’ – Eastern and Western Europe and North America. He suggested that the decline in democratic standards reflects the failure of the traditional party system, broadening gap between elites and electorates and growing distrust towards the ruling class, rise of populist parties, erosion of civil liberties and of the freedom of speech.
Anna Luehrmann, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, and a member of the Varieties of Democracy Institute, commented on the political aspect of democracy support, showcasing the practical use of V-Dem data for democracy aid allocation, programming and more effective targeting and delivery.
Research shows that most international aid is actually allocated to the countries situated in the middle of the democratic axis, between autocratic regimes and democratic societies. Closed autocracies however receive a large share of general aid, amounting up to 15% of all funds. As funding is often channelled directly to the governments, the question arises under which conditions democracy aid can be actually effective and significant? Or does it instead help to mask authoritarian practices behind legitimate international action?
She demonstrated how V-Dem data can provide insight into the political context of the countries where the democracy aid goes, consider the regime’s strategic interests and help programme it to substantially improve political institutions it targets.
EED Executive Director, Jerzy Pomianowski, noted that from the EED’s perspective, “funding should focus on individuals who make it their life goal to force the regime to democratise”. He underlined the difficulties in capturing these kind of results by database timelines.
Susan Dodsworth from the University of Oxford, emphasised the importance of bridging the gap between academic research and grassroots work of practitioners. This is where V-Dem comes into place, she continued, allowing the democracy aid providers to see what types of programmes work best and where. This database can serve that purpose to help better identify strategic priorities – in particular, smaller donors can target countries where their specific aid type would work best.
She also raised the issue of varieties of democracy in relation to democracy promotion – within such frameworks certain types of democracy are generally promoted with no space for the variation. Concluding, she underlined the need to have comprehensive data on democracy support in order to make the data about the state of democracy more useful; this is where the practitioners and academic community can draw on and benefit from each other’s expertise.