The last two centuries have seen a steady increase in the acceptance of the democratic form of government across the world. In theory or in a utopian sense, democracy is seen as the ideal state of government with the underlying principle of power being held by the people. However, is it actually good for the people? Do people who live under democracy live better lives? Does the standard of living improve when a country or region becomes more democractic? This study attempts to explore these questions by comparing trends in the United Nation’s Human Development Index with the democractic evolution of different countries over the last five decades.
My intrigue in this area was sparked by the study Global Trends in Democracy by Will Merrow. The study uses the Polity5 dataset provided by the Center for Systemic Peace to illustrate how the state of government has changed in the world and across different countries. It demonstrates some compelling visualizations of how the world has changed over the last two centuries, specifically corresponding to major world events. An interesting revelation by this study highlights how many countries which are conventionally considered ‘democratic’ have in fact moved in the opposite direction in recent years.
I wanted to go one step further in this analysis and explore how the shift in the democratic status of different countries has impacted the quality of life of their people. For this purpose, I decided to use the UNDP’s HDI and its corresponding indicators as markers of the quality of life of the people living in a country. There have been many visualizations of the human development reports provided by the UNDP. They explore a wide range of questions broadly considering how the HDI and its indicators have evolved over time and comparing them with different factors which influence them. UNDP itself provides some basic visualizations of the HDI data as well.
With this study, my goals were to explore the correlations between democratization and higher performance on the HDI and to contribute to the understanding of the performance on the HDI by taking the novel approach of combining these two datasets.
My analysis shows that on average the world has gotten more democratic over the last four decades. In particular, there was a shift in the year 1990 when the average score for the entire world moved from a negative autocratic score to a positive democratic score. This score has consistently improved since then and this improvement corresponds with a steady increase in the HDI for the world.
Having said that, the analysis on worldwide averages is limited because of the large variations in the trends within specific countries. The interactive dashboard allows users to select a country and get an overview of how the Polity5 score and the HDI for that country has changed over the years side by side. As an example, the cases of Pakistan, Qatar and Syria are highlighted on the dashboard. Countries like Pakistan have a highly fluctuating democratic score while demonstrating a steady rise in HDI. Qatar, on the other hand, has also shown a steady rise in HDI while having a steady autocratic score throughout. Syria’s example is interesting because a slight improvement in the democratic score is correlated with a rise in the HDI.
Another way of illustrating this relationship was to show each country’s performance on the HDI and mark the first year with the highest Polity5 score as a representation of the first year when the country was the most democratic it has been in this period. This helped in highlighting the multiple examples of countries where the year when they achieve the highest Polity5 score is followed by multiple years of high performance on the HDI.
A group-wise comparison of the countries gives an interesting insight. As expected, highly democratic countries have the highest HDI and EDI (Education Development Index). However, Highly Autocratic countries (with an average Polity5 score of -10 to -5) do consistently better than Autocratic countries (average Polity5 score -5 to 0) and do just as well as Moderately Democratic countries (average Polity5 score 0 to 5). One possible reason for this is that there are many Highly Autocratic countries which are monarchies but because of factors like high Gross Domestic Product and High Per Capita Income, they perform really well on the HDI and EDI scores. This illustrates the limitations of this analysis as there can be many more such factors which influence the HDI which are not currently captured.