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Taking stock of democracy

Monika Ericson Mélida Jiménez
17 December 2008

The spread of democracy worldwide has triggered a tremendous interest in the measurement and assessment of democracy and governance. This in turn has resulted in the production of a wide range of tools, frameworks, methodologies, ratings and indexes for assessing the quality of democracy. All have varying objectives, users and audiences that will also result in different outcomes. What they do have in common, however, is the aspiration to provide a means of producing a snapshot of the current status of democracies around the world. Monika Ericson is communications manager in the communications team at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)

Mélida Jiménez works in the State of Democracy project at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)

This article is a contribution to aninternational debate on democracy support co-hosted by InternationalIDEA and openDemocracy

Also published:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

ReinMüllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny"(25 November 2008)

The State of Democracy (SoD) framework, developed by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) differs from other assessment methodologies in one important respect. Moving away from the practice of ranking democratic performance and making external judgments, the comprehensive assessments produced as a result of applying the SoD framework are led and owned by local actors. The framework is intended for use by citizens around the world as a means of conducting a democratic health-check on their governments and institutions, and as a way of acquiring practical information that will in turn help to define priority areas for future policy initiatives and democratic reform. 

The SoD framework was developed in 2000, in partnership with Stuart Weir and David Beetham, experienced scholars of democracy associated with Democratic Audit and the Human Rights Centre at Essex University, eastern England. To date the SoD framework has been applied in twenty countries around the world - including Mongolia, the Netherlands, Malawi, Australia, the Philippines and the United Kingdom. These assessment initiatives have all been motivated by a variety of factors, illustrating the fact that "democracy has many stories". Those seeking to apply the framework in their countries stand to benefit greatly from the experiences, lessons and insights shared within the State of Democracy Network - a community of practice involving those who have applied the SoD assessment framework in their countries and regions. 

International IDEA is now launching the State of Democracy Network website.This website aims to serve as practical resource for anyone and everyone interested in assessing the quality of democracy in their own country. It is also intended to serve as a "home" for existing and future democracy assessment reports, and as an online meeting-place for participants in the SoD Network.

A tool for good practice

The website's main features include:

* Assessment framework This section explains the method, basic principles and mediating values underpinning the SoD framework as well as providing guidance on how to prepare for an assessment. It also includes all ninety search questions included in the overall framework. The online version of the assessment framework is now presented for the first time and it aims at making the tool as user-friendly and flexible as possible. This means, for example, that you can create a print-friendly customized framework of selected questions, or send a link to members of an assessment team wherever they are at the time.

* Assessment reports This section serves as a repository of assessment reports from around the world. The user can download country assessment reports or find information on the source and availability of the reports. All International IDEA's State of Democracy publications - including Assessingthe Quality of Democracy: A Practical Guide (written by David Beetham, Edzia Carvalho,Todd Landman, and Stuart Weir) - are downloadable free of charge. The aim is to create a home for these reports and make them accessible to all those interested in democracy assessment.

* Experiences and good practice Through audio interviews and presentations, assessment, team members share their experiences and lessons learnt and give advice to other teams. There is also regular input from teams currently carrying out an assessment in their countries. At the time of writing there are interviews with assessment team members from Mongolia, The Philippines, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Netherlands and Australia.

* Linking assessments to reform  This section explains how democracy assessments around the world have led to a wide range of policy initiatives and reforms. A clickable world map leads to the different assessment countries and accounts of the results of assessment initiatives in each country. This section will be updated continuously as teams share their stories and experiences of the assessment process in their particular country. In this context it is important to bear in mind the fact that the work of conducting assessments and defining resulting reform agendas takes time. By assessing the state of their own democracy and using the information to strengthen institutional norms and frameworks, countries demonstrate a real commitment to democratic ideals and practices.

* State of Democracy Network The process of developing the assessment methodology, as well as its application in practice has led to the setting up of the SoD Network - a network of experts who have applied the methodology, and continue to contribute to its further development.

* Ask an expert! The site is also fully interactive, with an "ask an expert" feature. Here users can ask SoD Network member experts about democracy assessments and browse previous and frequently asked questions. In this way the experiences and knowledge acquired from work with SoD assessments can be made more accessible to website visitors, and serve as a support for those undertaking or planning to undertake an assessment in their own countries.

Democracy building, as Vidar Helegesen and Rein Müllerson have in different ways argued, is a long and complex process. State of Democracy assessments are just one of the ways for enhancing the quality of democracies. The findings of assessments must be shared broadly with as many stakeholders as possible; to facilitate in-country debate and dialogue for democratic reform.  

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