The ‘difficulty factor’ reports like Freedom House miss before ranking democracies

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Freedom House, a US government-funded non-profit, non-governmental organisation publishes an annual report on democracy, political freedom, and human rights titled Freedom in the World. In the 2021 Report, of a total of 195 countries, 82 were found free, 59 partly free, and 54 not free. India’s status as a democracy was downgraded from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free,’ primarily on account of alleged ‘rising violence and discriminatory policies’ and ‘a crackdown on expressions of dissent.’ This brought a sharp repartee from India’s External Affairs Minister who said, “We have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody is not looking for their approval.” He highlighted the fact that India had shared its vaccines with 70 countries in the world. “Tell me, how many vaccines have the internationalist nations given?” he asked.

Another exercise in democracy ranking is carried out annually by the Economic Intelligence Unit of The Economist titled the ‘Democracy Index.’ Based on a global survey, nations are given a score and get categorised as full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. According to their last report, 8.4 percent of the global population lived in full democracies, 41 percent in flawed democracies, 15 percent in hybrid regimes and 35.6 percent in authoritarian regimes. In the latest 2020 Democracy Index, India was placed at 53rd position, a slippage of two places since the last review. This ‘democratic backsliding’ was ascribed to ‘crackdowns’ on civil liberties.

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This article does not intend to get into an analysis of the benchmarks used by the reports or the purity of the methods used to arrive at these conclusions. Instead, it picks on the ten best democracies in the world in accordance with the ratings by these bodies and analyses some of their fundamentals to draw certain conclusions. The top ten democracies in the world for the year 2020, as assessed, are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, and Australia. A further 13 nations, along with the first ten comprised the complete list of 23 full democracies.

In terms of population, Canada, the largest of the best ten, is ranked 39th among nations and the smallest Iceland is ranked 181st. Three of them (Australia, Netherlands, and Sweden) have ranks between 50 and 100. The rest (Denmark, Finland, Norway , Ireland and New Zealand) come between 100 and 156. In the comity of nations, their average rank in demographic magnitude is 104. In the size of their population, Canada ranks first among the ten with 37.6 million people and Iceland the smallest with 367,000 souls. The average population of these ten nations is 11.7 million and their total population is 1.5 percent of the global population. If we look at them from the perspective of India, all the ten of them put together have 8.5 percent of India’s population. Decidedly, these democracies do not have too many people. 

In terms of physical area, the two biggest of the ten nations, Canada and Australia, have an area of 9.98 million square kilometres and 7.69 million square kilometres respectively. The other seven, with the exception of the Netherlands, are also physically well-endowed and hold a total area of 19.34 million square kilometres. This is 3.79 percent of the earth’s surface, allowing them an average of 110,734 square metres per person. Iceland has a density of 1.2 persons per square kilometre, Australia a density of 3.3 persons and Canada 3.7 persons per square kilometre. The average density of the ten countries works out to 6.05 persons per square kilometre. In other words, with 1.5 percent of the world’s population, the ten countries hold 2.5 times the earth’s surface. In comparison with India, they hold about 6 times its area and about 5 times of space per person. In summary, they are very well gifted in terms of physical surface. And having a large share of the earth combined with a tiny share of the population works quite well for a robust democracy.

It would be appropriate to use the three yardsticks used by the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2020 to measure the extent of human development in the ten best democracies — gross national income (GNI) per capita, life expectancy at birth and expected years of schooling. All the ten countries enjoy a very high GNI per capita. This varies between USD 40,799 (New Zealand) and USD 68,371 (Ireland), and the ten nations average USD 58,271 GNI per capita. Distinctly, being rich helps being an ideal democracy.

The ten nations also have an enviable life expectancy at birth. The HDR 2020 records that the life expectancy in the ten nations hovers between 80.95 years (Denmark) and 83.4 years (Australia) with an average of 82.4 for the ten nations. In comparison with India, the average person in these countries lives 12.7 years longer than an average Indian.

The educational profile of these countries is equally impressive. In terms of expected years of education, the highest is recorded in Australia at 22 and the lowest in Canada at 16.2. Their average is 18.88 years. All ten nations have very little left to do in the area of literacy. Their average literacy rate is 99.2 percent, pegged a little below 100 on account of ingress of small migratory populations from third world countries who provide labour to their economy.

In terms of ethnicity, a single group dominates each country with Finland having the largest percentage at 91.3 percent persons of Finnish origin and an average of 82.19 percent for the ten nations having a somewhat common ethnic background. About 64 percent of the populations in these countries are followers of one religion. In none of these countries, the next religious group comes even close to the ten percent mark. Surprisingly, a large percentage of their populations are non-believers. An average of 28.2 percent individuals entered no religion in their answers with the highest at 54.1 percent in the Netherlands and the lowest at 10.1 percent in Ireland.

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One may also have a brief look at the other 13 countries listed as full democracies. Barring Japan, placed at rank 21, that has a population above 100 million (126.3 million), Germany (rank 14) with a population of 83.7 million and UK (rank 16) with a population of 66.6 million, all others have populations below 50 million. These 13 democracies log an average population of 34.28 million as against the average of 11.7 million for the first ten.

The average geographical area of these 13 countries is much smaller than the first ten. Their average is 209,560 square kilometres as against 1,933,696 square kilometres of the first ten. As a consequence of their larger average population and smaller geographical area, their density per square kilometre is much higher. As against 6.05 persons per square kilometre for the first ten, their average density is 163.60 per square kilometres. Their average GNP per capita is much lower. As against the average GNP of USD 54,635 for the first ten countries, the average GNP of the countries ranked between 11 and 23 is merely USD 41,506 or USD 13,129 lower.

A fair conclusion would be that, in general, countries endowed with small populations, large geographical area, and greater richness enjoy the luxury of practicing the details of democracy at leisure. A similar dispensation is not available to large countries that carry a very large and complex population, are short of space and still struggling with the distribution of economic wealth, health, education, and integration. Surveys that do not factor such truths and the ‘Difficulty Factor’ in their methodology will continue to be questioned for their results.   

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Views are personal.

The article first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.

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