Democracy Tools

A two-year project to develop a set of publicly available tools that will shed light on key areas of democratic functioning.

A new project funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund

In January 2020, the Chicago Center on Democracy won a $220,000 grant from the United Nations Democracy Fund to embark upon a two-year project to develop a set of publicly available tools that will shed light on key areas of democratic functioning.  

This project, entitled “Developing a Global Early-Warning System for Democratic Erosion,” will create three publicly accessible tools to allow all interested parties to study, track, and predict democratic erosion in countries around the world. The tools in the system will cover three areas of democratic functioning: 1) tracking global democratic performance, 2) analyzing the rhetorical strategies of politicians, and 3) understanding the role of referendums in healthy democracies.

Why we are working on this topic

The popular image of how democratic governments fall includes tanks in the streets, military takeover of the press, and other overt signs of a coup d’état. Recently, however, democracies die far more commonly from the piecemeal erosion of democratic institutions by elected leaders themselves. This process of democratic erosion is subtle and often not understood by a citizenry until it’s too late.

Civil society organizations, journalists, academics, and others require reliable tools to understand the process by which democratic erosion takes place. Such tools must be cross-national, as democratic erosion processes follow common patterns across regions; indeed, authoritarian leaders seem to study each other’s playbooks.

In the short term, the desired impact of this project is to shed new light on the processes by which democracies decline and can be strengthened, by informing the reporting of journalists, the advocacy and policy work of civil society groups, and the research of academics. Over the longer term, CCD hopes to play a part in a broader renaissance of awareness among the citizenry of all countries about how democracies function, what healthy democracy looks like, and the path to democratic strength.

The three key areas of this project

This project addresses a gap in the availability of tools that track improvements in and regressions of democratic performance. In particular, the project focuses on insufficiencies in three interrelated areas of cross-national tracking of democracy:

1. Global measurement of democratic performance. Various societal actors have a need for accurate tracking of national democratic health. These include civil society organizations, multilateral organizations, governmental foreign ministries, journalists, and others. Yet existing democracy indices are extremely complex, use simplistic aggregation methodologies, and have difficulty explaining why scores change year to year. Each of these stakeholder groups has the potential to benefit from a new, robust, transparent democratic performance index. CCD intends to construct a new index that is simpler, more transparent, and uses a more rational aggregation technique. The aim is for this index to be simple enough that non-technical individuals can understand it.

2. Rhetorical strategies of populist leaders. A growing number of elected leaders come into office through democratic means, but then proceed to threaten democratic institutions without overly violating the law. How are voters and watchdog groups to know that such politicians represent a threat, before they come to power? With the right type of analysis, the campaign statements of politicians can provide clues. By using a machine learning approach to analyze the campaign speeches of politicians across a dozen countries, CCD will create a tool that will allow users to see rhetorical patterns within and across speeches from politicians around the world.

3. The role of referendums. Referendums are often considered a tool of “direct democracy,” in that they provide the voting population a direct say in matters of policy importance. However, many questions are unanswered about referendums, such as why they are initiated, the role of special interest groups, and why the results are often considered suboptimal. CCD will create a publicly available database of national referendums from 1960 to present, organized by category, country, results, and other variables. This tool will help those involved in designing or campaigning for referendums to understand how they can be structured and implemented most effectively.

The UNDEF funding process for this grant

The United Nations Democracy Fund is a Trust Fund under the authority of the United Nations Secretary-General, which strengthens democratization efforts around the world by supporting projects that strengthen civil society, promote human rights, and encourage participation in democratic processes. It is the only UN entity solely dedicated to supporting democracy.

Out of more than 2,300 proposals from 141 countries submitted in this funding round, UNDEF funded just two percent of the projects, fewer than 50 projects in total. Each of these projects has gone through a rigorous vetting process. The 2,300+ proposal submissions are first reviewed by UNDEF’s Advisory Board, which is composed of representatives from 14 UN Member States. This board creates a longlist of about 300 of the most promising proposals. The board then consults with a variety of individuals and organizations. These include the UN Resident Coordinators (a position with the same rank as Ambassador within the UN system) and entities such as the UN Development Programme, UN Women, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Through this consultation process, the board arrives at a shortlist of proposals, which are then reviewed by the Permanent Missions of the relevant countries, and finally reviewed and approved by the UN Secretary-General.

Since its creation in 2006, UNDEF has disbursed more than $170 million through more than 800 projects across 140 countries. It is funded through contributions from governments, having been supported by more than 40 governments to date.

Getting involved

This project will be a collaborative effort of hundreds of individuals over a two-year period. As we ramp up our work, we will greatly appreciate any support that those interested in these topics can provide. This might include providing expert guidance, locating or translating campaign speeches, providing feedback on the design of the tools, beta-testing the tools, or other activities. If you might be interested in getting involved, please sign up for our center’s mailing list to stay updated on our progress, and reach out to Kevin Kromash with any ideas or offers of help.

The process of democratic erosion is subtle and often not understood until it’s too late. Reliable tools give citizens advance warning.

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