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Why we must acknowledge the flaws in V-Dem’s ‘Democracy Report’

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Certain international organizations have made it their mission to rate various countries according to criteria like democracy, religious freedom, human development, and hunger, among others. Despite the fact that these rankings occasionally lack objectivity and typically favor rich nations, vested interests frequently exaggerate these rankings to portray a country in an unfavorable light.

When foreign agencies release reports or studies saying that “democracy is in danger” in developing countries like India and Bangladesh, oppositions lap it up. Moreover, international financing institutions and governments frequently utilize these rankings as input, which can help or hurt a country’s status internationally. So, before taking such rankings at face value, the methodology must be carefully examined.

The Sweden-based research institute V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), in its latest report titled “Defiance in the Face of Autocratization,” has estimated that today 72% of the population of the world—5.7 billion people—live in an autocracy of some sort, while only 13% live in a liberal democracy. The institute rated Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan as “electoral autocracies,” a claim many would find difficult to believe given the serious methodological debate over the ranking. The report’s top rankings are dominated by North American and European countries, with numerous African nations, including Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, etc.

What went wrong?

Questions have been raised earlier about the credibility of democracy indices that rank countries along various parameters based solely on subjective opinions. The method used by V-Dem is allegedly suspect, according to fact-checking and investigative platforms like DisinfoLab.

A working paper titled “Why India does poorly on global perception indices” has also raised serious doubts about the methodology applied by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Variety of Democracies (V-DEM), and Freedom House. Again, pointing out the biases in academia, the American sociologist Prof. Salvatore Babones further claimed that these rankings are done very cheaply, based on a very narrow evidence base, and sometimes used as weapons to meet political goals.

It is important to understand that the democracy rankings have an impact on the economic prospects of a country because they ultimately feed into bond rating models. According to economist Sanjeev Sanyal, these indices are inputs into the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators (WGI), which, in turn, have approximately 18–20% weightage in sovereign ratings.

Moreover, democracy indices influence investment decisions. So, while such ratings cannot be ignored as “mere opinions”, there needs to be a closer inspection of the methodology used to arrive at the data.

‘Problems in Methodology”

By design, V-Dem is significantly flawed. One-party dictatorships can and frequently do outperform true democracies in terms of the quality of their elections since electoral democracy’s metrics are unable to distinguish between genuine and “fake” democracies.

Again, the problem is that the design of the Democracy Index is not outcome-based, which would ask if the country is effective in delivering what its citizens need and not merely if it complies with the established standards and procedures. On the basis of the V-Dem report, this paper reached four broad conclusions.

Lack of representation: The methodology adopted by V-Dem makes it clear that their report is not based on a large-scale survey but on the opinions of a handful of experts—just 30 to be exact. Shockingly, they are considered authorities in countries with millions of people, and organizations such as V-Dem depend on them.

Another source of concern is that 8 or 9 of the 30 experts who provide assessments of a country’s democracy are foreigners. It is a reality that their perceptions without substantial ground knowledge can be inaccurate, misleading, and sometimes untrue. So, when V-DEM prepares a report based on their inputs, how can we attach any credibility to this conclusion?

Lack of transparency: One of the major failings of the institutions is the secrecy they maintain about the “experts”. There is no transparency on how the experts were chosen, what the basis of their observations, or how cross-country comparisons are made. The index does not reveal the nationality, credentials, or even field of expertise of these experts. It is known that the survey is conducted by intellectuals, journalists, think tanks, directors of NGOs, and human rights activists, clearly pointing towards a small and cozy group of people.

There are scopes in which this tiny group can bring their political biases into their evaluations of a country. For example, in America, where most of the university professors tend to support the Democrats and oppose the Republicans, if someone asked a bunch of academics to evaluate Donald Trump’s presidency, it is overwhelmingly clear that intellectuals will give a negative evaluation regardless of the real situation.

This same pattern would replicate in South Asia, and it should not surprise anybody. In the case of India and Bangladesh, unfortunately, there is a class of intellectuals who have a clear bias against present governments and regularly put forth false narratives to promote their own political agendas. So, unless it is known who these experts are, what their professional standing is, and more importantly, what their political background and motivations are, the conclusions will always be suspect.

Ambiguity: For the democracy index, another problem is the filtering of data. The institute does not send out fact-finding missions to 200 countries. Instead, they sent a survey. Again, the list of questions used was quite subjective and worded in a way that made it impossible to answer them objectively.

Many of the attributes of sub-continental society that appear from the perspective of Washington, London, or Göteborg to be failures of democracy may actually reflect the challenges of maintaining order in a low-resource environment.

V-Dem downgrades Bangladesh and India’s score on its ‘egalitarian democracy’ scale because both countries’ social programs tend to be targeted to help the neediest, whereas the V-Dem Institute’s political scientists believe that universal social welfare schemes are more inclusive.

But would universal social programs really be more ‘democratic’ for a poor countries? By the way, a question on whether the country is a republic or a monarchy is not asked under any category. The northern European nations, many of which are constitutional monarchies, are clearly favored by this. Thus, an honest evaluation of the democracy of a country has to compare fairly to that of other countries around the world using the same metrics.

Credibility: No expert is unbiased. Given that V-Dem rely heavily on expert evaluations, it is difficult to escape the suggestion that they may have perhaps unwittingly been drawn into taking sides in domestic, regional, or international politics. It is important to note that the V-Dem Institute is funded by the Open Society Foundation, which is led by George Soros, a Hungarian-American investor who has officially declared war on nationalist leaders and conservative governments throughout the world. He is also a close ally of President Biden’s party and their biggest donor. So, the political affiliations of the people involved also indicate another layer to the questionable credibility of this report.

Paradox of rankings

There are some examples where the most oppressive, authoritative regimes have found a place way ahead of India and Bangladesh. The Swedish Institute placed Bangladesh one notch above Laos, a one-party communist state. It is interesting to note that V-Dem rated India and Bangladesh behind Nepal, an absolute monarchy as recently as 2006, where the democratic process has not yet established on a solid foundation. It is a real irony that India or Singapore can outperform Lesotho, which experienced a military coup in 2014 and has frequently been in a state of emergency. Some of the critics also raised questions about the ratings of countries like Iraq (122), which still stumbles repeatedly in establishing democracy, and Israel (39), where democracy has been strangled.

Surveys of this type, however dressed up, are always at risk of manipulation, which is why conclusions differ greatly. Thus, for example, shortly before the V-Dem Institute reported, the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) issued its Democracy Index 2023, where it treated Bangladesh differently. According to this index, Bangladesh has improved its democratic standing from 75th in 2021 to 73rd in 2022. It ranked Bangladesh third in South Asia, ahead of Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. It is clear that when the strengths and weaknesses of particular democracies are inadequately assessed, wide fluctuations in conclusion are inevitable.

However, the weakness of the index doesn’t necessarily justify that the health of democracy or political systems are up to the mark; rather, it is a fact that democracy is in crisis globally and an array of countries, from newly democratized nations to consolidated democracies, are experiencing severe backsliding. But judging a country only by some instances of failure while ignoring numerous instances of success is unfair. As the rankings have a long-term effect on determining a country’s economic and social engagements internationally, the V-Dem institute needs to be careful about the methodologies and processes.

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