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«Development, Security, and Cooperation Policy and Global Affairs THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS 500 Fifth Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20001 NOTICE: The ...»

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The EIU index does a slightly better job of disaggregating its component variables, which are reported for five dimensions: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. Correlations are still quite high but not outrageously so. Moreover, the specificity of the questions makes the claim of independence among these five variables plausible. Unfortunately, the committee was not able to get access to the data for the 60 specific questions that compose the five dimensions. It is quite possible that these underlying data are regarded by EIU as proprietary. If so, the index will have much less utility for policy and especially scholarly purposes.

Meanings of Democracy We turn now to the vexing problem of definition, to which we have already alluded. Democracy means rule by the people, and this core attribute has remained relatively constant since the term was invented by the Greeks. Yet the notion of popular sovereignty is exceedingly vague.

Thus, it may be necessary to adopt a more specific definition if the term is to have any practical utility. Unfortunately, in articulating an operational definition of democracy, considerable disagreement is encountered both within and outside the academic community. These disagreements are partly the product of cross-cultural differences (Schaffer 1998). More fundamentally, they are a product of the multiple uses that have developed over many centuries (Dunn 2006).

For current purposes the committee is primarily concerned with the concept as it might be applied to populous communities, that is, to nationIMPROVING DEMOCRACY ASSISTANCE states, regions, and large municipalities. In this context the term is nowadays frequently identified with political contestation (also often called competition), as secured through an electoral process by which leaders are selected. Where effective competition exists, democracy is also said to exist (Schumpeter 1942, Alvarez et al 1996). For many writers, competition is the sine qua non of democracy. This may be regarded as a minimalist (or “thin”) definition of the concept.

Although there is general consensus about the importance of political competition, many other attributes have also been understood as defining features of democracy. These include liberty/freedom, accountability, responsiveness, deliberation, participation, political equality, and social equality. Each of these attributes may in turn be broken down into lowerlevel components, so the field of potential attributes is indeed quite vast.

Adding these attributes to the minimal definition—political competition—various maximalist, or ideal-type, definitions of the concept can be constructed. Arguably, a true, complete, or full democracy should possess all of the foregoing definitional attributes, and each should be fully developed.

Unfortunately, the committee sees no way of resolving the choice between minimal and maximal definitions of democracy. The first seems too small; it excludes too much. But the latter is clearly too large and unwieldy to be serviceable; it is, indeed, indistinguishable from good governance. Moreover, the many possible resolutions of this dilemma that lie in between minimal and maximal definitions cannot avoid the problem of arbitrariness: Why should some elements of democracy (as that concept is commonly employed) be included, while others are excluded? As a general rule, stipulated definitions tend to be poorly bounded, imprecise, or arbitrary (i.e., they violate ordinary usages of the concept and therefore do not “make sense”). The committee realizes that definitions must often be stipulated. But if the resulting indicators are not perceived as legitimate by policymakers and citizens on a global level, they are unlikely to perform the work that USAID and others expect of it. An illegitimate index, particularly one that is considered arbitrary and involves excessive judgment on the part of coders, is easy to dismiss.

Thus, although one of the original tasks given to this committee by USAID was to develop an “initial operational definition of democracy and governance,” as discussed above, the committee has concluded, after extensive consultation among committee members and with leading authorities on democracy, that it is not possible for it to do so. The challenges facing any particular committee of scholars in producing a definition that would command wide assent, as outlined above, are simply too great.


Thirteen Dimensions of Democracy The committee’s proposed solution is to suggest, as a starting point for further study, a disaggregation of the concept of democracy down to a level where greater consensus over matters of definition, along with greater precision of measurement, may be obtained. In this way the committee hopes to sidestep the eternally vexing question of what “democracy” means.

Having considered the matter at some length and having consulted with distinguished experts on the subject, the committee resolved that there are at least 13 dimensions of democracy that are independently assessable (i.e., they do not reduce to some overall conception of “how

country A is doing”):

1. National Sovereignty: Is the nation sovereign?

2. Civil Liberty: Do citizens enjoy civil liberty in matters pertaining to politics?

3. Popular Sovereignty: Are elected officials sovereign relative to nonelected elites?

4. Transparency: How transparent is the political system?

5. Judicial Independence: How independent and empowered is the judiciary?

6. Checks on the Executive: Are there effective checks on the executive?

7. Election Participation: Is electoral participation unconstrained and extensive?

8. Election Administration: Is the administration of elections fair?

9. Election Results: Are the results of an election accepted by the citizenry to indicate that a democratic process has occurred?

10. Leadership Turnover: Is there regular turnover in the top political leadership?

11. Civil Society: Is civil society dynamic, independent, and politically active?

12. Political Parties: Are political parties well institutionalized?

13. Subnational Democracy: How decentralized is political power and how democratic is politics at subnational levels?

The committee realizes that most of these dimensions are continuous (matters of degree), rather than dichotomous (either/or). Even so, it seems reasonable to refer to them—loosely—as potential necessary conditions of a fully democratic polity.

Further details regarding the 13 components of the index, along with some initial suggestions for how to measure them, are discussed in  IMPROVING DEMOCRACY ASSISTANCE Appendix C. Here, the reader’s attention is called to the following general


First, the criteria applying to different dimensions sometimes conflict with one another. For example, strong civil society organizations representing one social group may pressure government to restrict other citizens’ civil liberties (Levi 1996, Berman 1997). This is implicit in democracy’s multidimensional character. Good things do not always go together.

Second, some dimensions are undoubtedly more important in guaranteeing a polity’s overall level of democracy than others. However, since resolving this issue depends on which overall definition of democracy is adopted and on various causal assumptions that are difficult to prove, the committee is not making judgments on this issue.

Third, it is important to note that dimensions of democracy are not always dimensions of good goernance. Thus, inclusion of an attribute on this list does not imply that the quality of governance in countries with this attribute will be higher than those without it. For example, some credibly democratic countries (Japan after World War II, the United States in the nineteenth century) have seen enormous corruption scandals. Of course, evaluating whether an attribute of democracy improves the quality of governance hinges on how one chooses to define the latter, about which much has been written but little agreement can be found (Hewitt de Alcantara 1998, Pagden 1998, Knack and Manning 2000). The committee leaves aside the question of how good governance might be defined, noting only that some writers consider democracy an aspect of good governance, some consider good governance an aspect of democracy, and still others prefer to approach these terms as separate and largely independent (nonnested) concepts.

Finally, the committee does not rule out the possibility of alterations to this list of 13. The list might be longer (including additional components) or shorter (involving a consolidation of categories). There is nothing sacrosanct about this particular list of dimensions. Indeed, the committee does not assume that a truly comprehensive set of dimensions is possible, given the extensive and overlapping set of meanings that have been attached to this multivalent term. However, the committee believes strongly that these 13 dimensions are a plausible place to begin.

In any case, whether the index has 13 components or some other (smaller or larger) number is less significant for present purposes than the approach itself. Note that if one begins with a disaggregated set of indicators, it is easy to aggregate upward to create more consolidated concepts.

One may also aggregate all the way up to Big D democracy, à la Polity and Freedom House. However, the committee does not propose aggregation rules for this purpose, leaving it as a matter for future scholars and policymakers to decide.


Potential Benefits of Disaggregation No aggregate democracy index offers a satisfactory scale for purposes of country assessment or for answering general questions pertaining to democracy. Thus, the committee strongly supports USAID’s inclination to focus its efforts on a more disaggregated set of indicators as a way of capturing the diverse components of this key concept while overcoming difficulties inherent in measures that attempt to summarize, in a single statistic, a country’s level of democracy (à la Freedom House or Polity).

To be sure, before undertaking a venture of this scope and scale, USAID will want to consider carefully the added value that might be delivered by a new set of democracy indicators. In the committee’s view, conceptual disaggregation offers multiple advantages. Even so, this approach will not solve every problem, and the committee does not wish to overstate the potential rewards our proposal could bring.

The first advantage to disaggregation is the prospect of identifying concepts on whose definitions and measurements most people can agree.

While the world may never agree on whether the overall level of democracy in India can be summarized as a “4” or a “5” (on some imagined scale), it may yet agree on more specific scores along 13 (or so) dimensions for the world’s largest democracy.

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