Malawi is the only place where democracy has improved under Covid. 80 countries have got worse.

October 23, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Blimey. You never know when a tweet is going to hit the spot and get a lot of retweets and likes. That’s what happened this week with a map I tweeted from The Economist, taken from an article entitled ‘The pandemic has eroded democracy and respect for human rights’ (gated). Quite a lot of questions and disagreement came in, so I thought I’d provide some more background here.

Change in quality of democracy and human rights

The Economist’s explanation of the map is:

‘Freedom House, a think-tank in Washington, counts 80 countries where the quality of democracy and respect for human rights have deteriorated since the pandemic began. The list includes both dictatorships that have grown nastier and democracies where standards have slipped. Only one country, Malawi, has improved.’

The Freedom House report is summarized here. Full report here.

Most of the Twitter traffic was about Malawi (I particularly liked the suggested call for Malawian observers to go to the US for the impending elections).

Others asked ‘why is my country rated the same as X’, apparently missing the point that this was about change in freedoms over the past year, not absolute levels.

And some graphics geeks got justifiably annoyed that there is almost no difference in colour coding between ‘no change’ and ‘no data’ (that’s on The Economist, not Freedom House). To clarify, the report includes 192 countries, so there aren’t many missing.

The methodology behind the map: ‘approximately 1,000 experts were invited to participate, selected from a list of activists and experts on democracy and human rights within the networks of Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy. In total, 398 experts from 105 countries completed the survey, which was conducted online from July 29 to August 15.’

OK, I must admit that the para left me a little queasy. Back in the days of my youth/the Cold War, Freedom House and NED were identified very strongly with US foreign policy (according to Wikipedia Freedom House was 86% US government funded in 2016, and the NED is a fully funded US government Quango). They were seen as having an essentially right-wing understanding of human rights that prioritises individual liberties, the formal trappings of electoral democracy and the (alleged) wonders of the market over things like inequality, people having enough to eat, or collective, social or economic rights. I suspect that they haven’t changed much.

In which case, you could be forgiven for wondering about the politics and self-selecting nature of the 398 ‘experts’ who completed the survey.

But I still think the report is valuable and informative  – and we should always be aware of/take into account the priors and assumptions of any piece of research, whether they reflect or conflict with our own biases. Right?

And it does illustrate the power of graphics – not just the one adapted by the Economist that proved so popular on twitter, but a whole bunch of great illustrations in the report – here are a couple.

Government abuses during pandemic
Pillars of democracy during pandemic
October 23, 2020
Duncan Green