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

The top ten democracies of the world put together have 8.5 per cent of India’s population. Decidedly, they do not have too many people.

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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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14 COMMENTS

  1. When the US State Department echoes the same concerns, questioning these very credible, trustworthy institutions does not seem like a particularly fruitful strategy.

  2. Are those countries better democracies because of bieng developed, Or are they developed because they have better democracy to increase the quality of decisions?
    To factor in ‘difficulty factor’, we can compare India’s present with its past but still arrive at a similar conclusion: India’s democracy is on its way down

  3. Very apt arguments. Let me reproduce an extract from my comment on such reports which appeared in these sections a few days back.

    *** Let me explain. Though India is the fifth largest economy , the USA being the largest, we are way down at 144th in per capita GDP. Also remember that India is a country, at 1,380,004,385, with the second largest population in the world. The third largest population, with 331,002,651 (23.98562% of India’s) is in the USA. Bangladesh has a population of 170,060,000 (12.223% of India’s) – (source worldometer.info). We pretty much do not know what exactly happens inside China, the largest populated Nation in the world.

    Size matters.

    It has been a slow journey for India, which was decidedly left a poor Nation by Western foreign rulers when they left India in 1947. It has seen many ups and downs since Independence of only about 70 odd years, with nearly 50 of those years as a closed economy, when it did not pursue any emphatic economic policies for development and growth. In contrast, for instance, the USA has been an independent democracy since 1776 (245 years). So, there you are …

    Time matters and is directly proportional to size.

    It is a moot point where and how does these studies collect data in India for such surveys? Are such data applied linearly across countries in the great study being reported internationally? Does only arithmetic go into such studies or some logic too? You will realise what you see is not what it is.

    As an example, let us take one aspect of women’s employment and look at some situations in India. One fact that is very important to note is that every citizen in the “developed world” has a unique identity and every employment even as a housemaid is reported through this unique identity such as a social security number, in the USA. The data is near dead accurate. The USA reports unemployment rates weekly to monitor its economy which is not done through measuring inflation as in India.

    In India, many employments, mostly of women, are not recorded. For instance, more than 80% of the house holds in Bangalore, my city, employ maids. Have you ever seen a database for such employment? About 30% of road side vegetable and fruit vendors in my locality are women. There is also an iron lady (a lady who irons clothes) in my colony. I play golf (which is an economy that affords employment to a considerable number of men and women) considered a sin by many and resented as a snobbish sport. There are many caddies (employed in golf courses) in Bangalore who hail from UP, Bihar, WB and Assam. Most of them live single with their wives tending the small plots of land back home, cultivating seasonal crops, some vegetables and rearing a cow (buffalo) or two. I wonder if these employments are accounted for. Nobody here reports these expenditures / incomes.

    I also wonder what exactly these surveys want to convey with disproportionate comparisons. With difference in numbers compared being huge and disparate, even percentages do not tell the true story. I suspect these surveys just want to convey a superiority of the West (and those controlled by them) and nothing else. And we, including our venerable media, “intelligentsia” and “experts”, fall prey to these shenanigans and play second fiddle in these machinations.

    Tail piece: We as a Nation need to develop our own methods and datums to measure our progress.

  4. Yes, we know India’s population increased and geographical space shrinked suddenly after 2014. There is no limit to justifying slow and steady march of fascism in India since 2014. No hope when we see the fourth pillar of democracy is collapsing under the weight of Modinama.

  5. Time for Indians to grow up and stop taking Western ( read US and UK ) opinions too seriously. They stem from the West’s cultural mindset which believes it knows best. The best take on Western civilization was by Mahatma Gandhi who when asked his views opined deprecated that it was a good idea. For the same reason he refused to endorse the charter of human rights asking instead asking for a charter of human responsibilities. A culture that respects all life can hardly be understood by a culture that accords primacy only to humans. As Rudyard Kipling said in a different context ” East is East, West is West and the twain shall never meet”.

  6. Even though you may agree with the points mentioned in the article about better resources making better democracies. Countries like Russia and China are pretty big too. Also Russia has significantly lower population. And it is not known to be a stellar democracy. However, this does not absolve governments in India from targeting citizens based on their views, caste, religion. This is not a bjp, congress, app, tmc, left problem. It’s an India problem. As long as the debate on this is partisan, it won’t be solved. Of course, bjp is pretty blatant about scuttling dissent.

  7. An intellectually more seductive way of exclaiming, Too much Democracy. One would make the completely contrary case. A free press / media, institutions that are autonomous, the empowerment of ordinary citizens through praiseworthy initiatives like the RTI Act, would support better national achievements in all domains. The best riposte to this column is the graph of India’s economic growth in recent years.

  8. Laughable analysis. Basically if we have too many people we can throw a few of them in jail for dissent! India’s relative disadvantages in terms of size, population , life expectancy etc have been the same

    Can i also write an article in the print. You seem to have no editorial filter so i do stand a chance

  9. That is like saying, People living in small, west European nations are entitled to drink clean water, we should not mind a little sewage floating around in ours.

    • When articulating your Pov, only points backing the basic premise is emphasized. Analysis of points and counter points leading to a conclusion is missing in such POV pieces. Print wants to publish POV, that is OK. It just needs to say so upfront.

  10. “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. ”

    So Freedom House is basically telling us that being ethnically and religiously homogeneous is the solution to being a good democracy. Turkey tried that out by exterminating armenians, greeks and assyrians in the early twentieth century. Now that it is religiously homogeneous, one can hardly call it democratic.

    It seems that the religious homogeneity factor works only if the population is largely non religious. How UNsurprising. The author fails to understand that non religious societies have one reason less to fight against each other

  11. Defences such as this don’t seem to consider or even ask a question – why did we fall in 4 points between last year and now? Instead it sounds like what we have heard before ‘our standards of hygiene are different from their standards’. Vaccine diplomacy is external nothing to do with civil liberties. MEA speaks the language of the whatssap uncles, sadly.

  12. It’s not about population, it is about mentality. In your analysis, you conveniently ignore the cultural conservatism movements of the majority Hindu extremism and simply put blame on the population.

  13. A classic article written AFTER the conclusion and summary were preordained. Does not matter by who all. Enuf to keep in mind these are evidences useful to attest the conclusion made in the end or in the headline. In science papers, the peer review will dismiss this paper as fabricated to reach a conclusion desired. Comparing Norway etc. is a JOKE. Yes, we all know the size and density of these places. Save the time and skip this trash.

Comments are closed.