Another Note on the Limitations of Event Data

Last week, Foreign Policy ran a blog post by Kalev Leetaru that used GDELT to try to identify trends over time in protest activity around the world. That’s a fascinating and important question, but it’s also a really hard one, and I don’t think Kalev’s post succeeds in answering it. I wanted to use this space to explain why, because the issues involved are fundamental to efforts to answer many similar and important questions about patterns in human social behavior over time.

To me, the heart of Kalev’s post is his attempt to compare the intensity of protest activity worldwide over the past 35 years, the entirety of the period covered by GDELT. Ideally, we would do this with some kind of index that accounted for things like the number of protest events that occurred, the number of people who participated in them, and the things those people did.

Unfortunately, the data set that includes all of that information for all relevant events around the world doesn’t exist and never will. Although it might feel like we now live in a Panopticon, we don’t. In reality, we can still only see things that get reported in sources to which we have access; those reports aren’t always “true,” sometimes conflict, and are always incomplete; and, even in 2014, it’s still hard to reliably locate, parse, and encode data from the stories that we do see.

GDELT is the most ambitious effort to date to overcome these problems, and that ambition is helping to pull empirical social science in some new and productive directions. GDELT uses software to scour the web for media stories that contain information about a large but predetermined array of verbal and physical interactions. These interactions range from protests, threats, and attacks to more positive things like requests for aid and expressions of support. When GDELT’s software finds text that describes one of those interactions, it creates a record that includes numeric representations of words or phrases indicating what kind of interaction it was, who was involved, and where and when it took place. Each of those records becomes one tiny layer in an ever-growing stack. GDELT was only created in the 2010s, but its software has been applied to archival material to extend its coverage all the way back to 1979. The current version includes roughly 2.5 million records, and that number now grows by tens of thousands every day.

GDELT grows out of a rich tradition of event data production in social science, and its coding process mimics many of the procedures that scholars have long used to try to catalog various events of interest—or, at least, to capture reasonably representative samples of them. As such, it’s tempting to treat GDELT’s records as markers of discrete events that can be counted and cross-tabulated to identify trends over time and other patterns of interest.

That temptation should be assiduously resisted for two reasons that Leetaru and others involved in GDELT’s original creation have frequently acknowledged. First, GDELT can only create records from stories that it sees, and the volume and nature of media coverage and its digitized renderings have changed radically over the past 30 years. This change continues and may still be accelerating. One result of this change is exponential growth over time in the volume of GDELT records, as shown in the chart below (borrowed from an informative post on the Ward Lab blog). Under these circumstances, it’s unclear what comparisons across years, and especially decades, are getting at. Are we seeing meaningful changes in the phenomenon of interest, or are we really just seeing traces of change in the volume and nature of reporting on them?

Change Over Time in the Volume of GDELT Records, 1979-2011 (Source: Ward Lab)

Second, GDELT has not fully worked out how to de-duplicate its records. When the same event is reported in more than one media source, GDELT can’t always tell that they are the same event, sometimes even when it’s the same story appearing verbatim in more than one outlet. As a result, events that attract more attention are likely to generate more records. Under these circumstances, the whole idea of treating counts of records in certain categories as counts of certain event types becomes deeply problematic.

Kalev knows these things and tries to address them in his recent FP post on trends over time in protest activity. Here is how he describes what he does and the graph that results:

The number of protests each month is divided by the total number of all events recorded in GDELT that month to create a “protest intensity” score that tracks just how prevalent worldwide protest activity has been month-by-month over the last quarter-century (this corrects for the exponential rise in media coverage over the last 30 years and the imperfect nature of computer processing of the news). To make it easier to spot the macro-level patterns, a black 12-month moving average trend line is drawn on top of the graph to help clarify the major temporal shifts.

Intensity of protest activity worldwide 1979-April 2014 (black line is 12-month moving average) (Source: Kalev Leetaru via FP)

Unfortunately, I don’t think Kalev’s normalization strategy addresses either of the aforementioned problems enough to make the kind of inferences he wants to make about trends over time in the intensity of protest activity around the world.

Let’s start at the top. The numerator of Kalev’s index is the monthly count of records in a particular set of categories. This is where the lack of de-duplication can really skew the picture, and the index Kalev uses does nothing to directly address it.

Without better de-duplication, we can’t fix this problem, but we might be less worried about it if we thought that duplication were a reliable marker of event intensity. Unfortunately, it almost certainly isn’t. Certain events catch the media’s eyes for all kinds of reasons. Some are related to the nature of the event itself, but many aren’t. The things that interest us change over time, as do the ways we talk about them and the motivations of the corporations and editors who partially mediate that conversation. Under these circumstances, it would strain credulity to assume that the frequency of reports on a particular event reliably represents the intensity, or even the salience, of that event. There are just too many other possible explanations to make that inferential leap.

And there’s trouble in the bottom, too. Kalev’s decision to use the monthly volume of all records in the denominator is a reasonable one, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem it’s meant to address, either.

What we get from this division is a proportion: protest-related records as a share of all records. The problem with comparing these proportions across time slices is that they can differ for more than one reason, and that’s true even if we (heroically) assume that the lack of de-duplication isn’t a concern. A change from one month to the next might result from a change in the frequency or intensity of protest activity, but it could also result from a change in the frequency or intensity of some other event type also being tallied. Say, for example, that a war breaks out and produces a big spike in GDELT records related to violent conflict. Under these circumstances, the number of protest-related records could stay the same or even increase, and we would still see a drop in the “protest intensity score” Kalev uses.

In the end, what we get from Kalev’s index isn’t a reliable measure of the intensity of protest activity around the world and its change over time. What we get instead is a noisy measure of relative media attention to protest activity over a period of time when the nature of media attention itself has changed a great deal in ways that we still don’t fully understand. That quantity is potentially interesting in its own right. Frustratingly, though, it cannot answer seemingly simple questions like “How much protest activity are we seeing now?” or “How has the frequency or intensity of protest activity changed over the past 30 years?”

I’ll wrap this up by saying that I am still really, really excited about the new possibilities for social scientific research opening up as a result of projects like GDELT and, now, the Open Event Data Alliance it helped to spawn. At the same time, I think we social scientists have to be very cautious in our use of these shiny new things. As excited as we may be, we’re also the ones with the professional obligation to check the impulse to push them harder than they’re ready to go.

Reform in Burma Isn’t Unraveling (Yet), But Our Narrative About It Sure Is

If a couple of recent pieces on Foreign Policy‘s website are to be believed, the democratization process that sputtered to life in Burma two and a half years ago has stalled and is now rolling back downhill. In “Hillary’s Burma Problem,” Catherine Traywick and John Hudson argue that “the promise of a free and democratic Myanmar is rapidly receding as sectarian violence escalates and the government backslides on a number of past reforms.” Meanwhile, Democracy Lab blogger Min Zin tells us that, for the past few months, he’s been “unable to escape an ominous sense that the political situation in Burma is on the wrong track,” and he points to a leadership crisis and a growing risk of social unrest as the chief sources of his anxiety.

I won’t dispute any of the facts in those pieces, and I’ve been an avid reader of Min Zin’s excellent Democracy Lab posts as long as he’s been writing them. As I argued on this blog a couple of years ago, though, I think it’s more accurate to think of what’s happened in Burma so far not as a transition to democracy, but as a case of liberalization from above that may or may not produce a try at democratic government in the next few years.

Is that a distinction without a difference? I don’t think so. As O’Donnell and Schmitter propose in their Little Green Book, liberalization involves the expansion of freedoms from arbitrary acts of the state and others, while democratization entails the expansion of popular consultation and accountability. The two processes often coincide, but they are usefully construed as distinct streams of political change. Crucially, while democratic government is impossible without civil liberties—especially freedoms of speech, association, and assembly—liberalization can and sometimes does occur without any democratization.

Understood on those terms, I think the liberalization process in Burma has progressed incrementally but significantly in the past two years and has not yet regressed in any substantial way, with the partial but significant exception of the plight of the Rohingya. What Burma’s liberalization has done is create space for new political and economic activity, and as is often the case, not all of what people are doing with that space is progressive or good. On the positive side of the ledger, freedoms of speech and the press remain incomplete but are much improved. Political prisoners have been released and not restocked. Apparently, there’s even a budding startup scene in Yangon. On the negative side of the ledger, the prospect of new fortunes is spurring land grabs by elites, and attempts to protest those displacements and the pollution that sometimes follow have largely been ignored or harshly repressed. And, of course, some Burmans have responded to the opening by mobilizing around an aggressive chauvinism that has already produced what amounts to a slow-rolling episode of ethnic cleansing and still threatens to slide into genocide.

As is sometimes but not always the case, this partial liberalization has also been accompanied by some significant but still limited elements of democratization, too. Parliamentary by-elections were held in 2012, opposition parties won nearly all the seats at stake, and no one shut the process down. More recently, word came that the National League for Democracy, the party of ostensible opposition leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi, would field a candidate for president in balloting scheduled for next year, even if Suu Kyi herself is not permitted to run.

What we still haven’t seen, though, is any clear sign that deeply entrenched elites plan to allow that process to threaten their station. Rather, what’s emerged so far is more like the arrangements that hold in monarchies like Morocco or Jordan. There, loyal opposition parties are allowed to contest seats in the legislature, and a certain amount of free discourse and even protest is tolerated, but formal and informal rules ensure that incumbent insiders retain control over the political agenda and veto power over all major decisions.

For that to change in Burma, the country’s constitution would have to change. When military elites rewrote that document a few years ago, however, they cleverly ensured that constitutional reform couldn’t happen without their approval. So far, we have seen no signs that they plan to relinquish that arrangement any time soon. Until we do, I think it’s premature to speak of a transition to democracy in Burma. Democratization, yes, but not enough yet to say that the country is between political orders. What we have now, I think, is a partially liberalized authoritarian regime that’s still led by a military elite with uncertain intentions.

To make sure this view wasn’t crazy, I queried Brian Joseph, senior director for Asia and Global Programs at the National Endowment for Democracy and a longtime Burma watcher who also happens to be the father of one of my son’s classmates. In particular, I asked Brian by email if he agreed with Traywick and Hudson’s thesis that the “transition” in Burma was “unraveling.” He pointed me toward Min Zin’s piece as “a more informative analysis” and said he agreed with Min Zin that “the transition’s trajectory is no longer clear” and then added parenthetically: “Not that I ever thought it was in the first place but that was clearly the message of the [international] community.”

Brian’s reference to “the message of the international community” in that aside is crucial to understanding how what I described here can be true and we can still see analyses claiming that Burma’s “transition” is “unraveling.” Best I can tell, what’s coming undone right now isn’t Burma’s reform process, although as Min Zin discusses, that certainly could happen, and there are plenty of reasons to fear that it might.

No, what I think we’re really seeing in articles like the one by Traywick and Hudson is an overdue deflation of the hype balloon Burma’s reforms have pumped up. With some help from various outsiders—some eager to see deeper political transformations occur, others looking to capitalize on the money-making opportunities this new market presents—we let our hopes for Burma’s future drive our narrative about what was happening in the present. The Arab Spring spurred a similar dynamic in American analysis of that part of the world. Let’s hope the whiplash over Burma isn’t as severe.

The Fog of War Is Patchy

Over at Foreign Policy‘s Peace Channel, Sheldon Himmelfarb of USIP has a new post arguing that better communications technologies in the hands of motivated people now give us unprecedented access to information from ongoing armed conflicts.

The crowd, as we saw in the Syrian example, is helping us get data and information from conflict zones. Until recently these regions were dominated by “the fog war,” which blinded journalists and civilians alike; it took the most intrepid reporters to get any information on what was happening on the ground. But in the past few years, technology has turned conflict zones from data vacuums into data troves, making it possible to render parts the conflict in real time.

Sheldon is right, but only to a point. If crowdsourcing is the future of conflict monitoring, then the future is already here, as Sheldon notes; it’s just not very evenly distributed. Unfortunately, large swaths of the world remain effectively off the grid on which the production of crowdsourced conflict data depends. Worse, countries’ degree of disconnectedness is at least loosely correlated with their susceptibility to civil violence, so we still have the hardest time observing some of the world’s worst conflicts.

The fighting in the Central African Republic over the past year is a great and terrible case in point. The insurgency that flared there last December drove the president from the country in March, and state security forces disintegrated with his departure. Since then, CAR has descended into a state of lawlessness in which rival militias maraud throughout the country and much of the population has fled their homes in search of whatever security and sustenance they can find.

We know this process is exacting a terrible toll, but just how terrible is even harder to say than usual because very few people on hand have the motive and means to record and report out what they are seeing. At just 23 subscriptions per 100 people, CAR’s mobile-phone penetration rate remains among the lowest on the planet, not far ahead of Cuba’s and North Korea’s (data here). Some journalists and NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been covering the situation as best they can, but they will be among the first to tell you that their information is woefully incomplete, in part because roads and other transport remain rudimentary. In a must-read recent dispatch on the conflict, anthropologist Louisa Lombard noted that “the French colonists invested very little in infrastructure, and even less has been invested subsequently.”

A week ago, I used Twitter to ask if anyone had managed yet to produce a reasonably reliable estimate of the number of civilian deaths in CAR since last December. The replies I received from some very reputable people and organizations makes clear what I mean about how hard it is to observe this conflict.

C.A.R. is an extreme case in this regard, but it’s certainly not the only one of its kind. The same could be said of ongoing episodes of civil violence in D.R.C., Sudan (not just Darfur, but also South Kordofan and Blue Nile), South Sudan, and in the Myanmar-China border region, to name a few. In all of these cases, we know fighting is happening, and we believe civilians are often targeted or otherwise suffering as a result, but our real-time information on the ebb and flow of these conflicts and the tolls they are exacting remains woefully incomplete. Mobile phones and the internet notwithstanding, I don’t expect that to change as quickly as we’d hope.

[N.B. I didn't even try to cover the crucial but distinct problem of verifying the information we do get from the kind of crowdsourcing Sheldon describes. For an entry point to that conversation, see this great blog post by Josh Stearns.]

Playing Telephone with Data Science

You know the telephone game, where a bunch of people sit in a circle or around a table and pass a whispered sentence from person to person until it comes back to the one who started it and they say the version they heard out loud and you all crack up at how garbled it got?

Well, I wonder if John Beieler is cracking up or crying right now, because the same thing is happening with a visualization he created using data from the recently released Global Dataset on Events, Language, and Tone, a.k.a. GDELT.

Back at the end of July, John posted a terrific animated set of maps of protest activity worldwide since 1979. In a previous post on a single slice of the data used in that animation, John was careful to attach a number of caveats to the work: the maps only include events covered in the sources GDELT scours, GDELT sometimes codes events that didn’t happen, GDELT sometimes struggles to put events in their proper geographic location, event labels in the CAMEO event classification scheme GDELT uses doesn’t always mean what you think they mean, counts of events don’t tell you anything about the size or duration of the events being counted, etc., etc.  In the blogged cover letter for the animated series, John added one more very important caveat about the apparent increase in the incidence of protest activity over time:

When dealing with the time-series of data, however, one additional, and very important, point also applies. The number of events recorded in GDELT grows exponentially over time, as noted in the paper introducing the dataset. This means that over time there appears to be a steady increase in events, but this should not be mistaken as a rise in the actual amount of behavior X (protest behavior in this case). Instead, due to changes in reporting and the digital recording of news stories, it is simply the case that there are more events of every type over time. In some preliminary work that is not yet publicly released, protest behavior seems to remain relatively constant over time as a percentage of the total number of events. This means that while there was an explosion of protest activity in the Middle East, and elsewhere, during the past few years, identifying visible patterns is a tricky endeavor due to the nature of the underlying data.

John’s post deservedly caught the eye of J. Dana Stuster, an assistant editor at Foreign Policy, who wrote a bit about it last week. Stuster’s piece was careful to repeat many of John’s caveats, but the headline—“Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet since 1979″—got sloppy, essentially shedding several of the most important qualifiers. As John had taken pains to note, what we see in the maps is not all that there is, and some of what’s shown in the maps didn’t really happen.

Well, you can probably where this is going.  Not long after that Foreign Policy piece appeared, I saw this tweet from Chelsea Clinton:

In fewer than 140 characters, Clinton impressively managed to put back the caveat Foreign Policy had dropped in its headline about press coverage vs. reality, but the message had already been garbled, and now it was going viral. Fast forward to this past weekend, when the phrase “Watch a Jaw-dropping Visualization of Every Protest since 1979” made repeated appearances in my Twitter timeline. This next iteration came from Ultraculture blogger Jason Louv, and it included this bit:

Also fruitful: Comparing this data with media coverage and treatment of protest. Why is it easy to think of the 1960s and 70s as a time of dissent and our time as a more ordered, controlled and conformist period when the data so clearly shows that there is no comparison in how much protest there is now compared to then? Media distortion much?

So now we get a version that ignores both the caveat about GDELT’s coverage not being exhaustive or perfect and the related one about the apparent increase in protest volume over time being at least in part an artifact of “changes in reporting and the digital recording of news stories.” What started out as a simple proof-of-concept exercise—“The areas that are ‘bright’ are those that would generally be expected to be so,” John wrote in his initial post—had been twisted into a definitive visual record of protest activity around the world in the past 35 years.

As someone who thinks that GDELT is an analytical gusher and believes that it’s useful and important to make work like this accessible to broader audiences, I don’t know what to learn from this example. John was as careful as could be, but the work still mutated as it spread. How do you prevent this from happening, or at least mitigate the damage when it does?

If anyone’s got some ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Development as Ideology

In a blog post yesterday, Duke economist Marc Bellemare responded to a recent contrarian piece on Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab about development trends in Africa. In the FP essay, Rick Rowden argued that recent claims of “Africa rising” ring hollow because the expansions of GDP and trade on which those claims are based aren’t driven by industrialization. Bellemare’s having none of it:

Not everyone agrees as to what “development” means, but for most economists, development means increased standards of living, which are best measured via economic statistics such as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, which may or may not reflect growth in the manufacturing and services sector of the economy.

I think Marc’s right that it’s more useful to define (human social) development in ways that are agnostic of specific causes, and that many professional economists nowadays think in those terms. At the same time, I get a little uneasy whenever development is linked tightly to GDP growth. Being acquainted with Marc, I suspect that his aim in doing so is simply to make empirical analysis of development more tractable. Still, it’s also true that there’s a powerful strain of technocratic thinking in some quarters of economics, one that prioritizes growth over all other things, and this myopia can sometimes become pernicious. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, for example, Armin Rosen accuses Jeffrey Sachs, a leading candidate for president of the World Bank not so long ago, of turning a blind eye toward the human-rights violations of authoritarian leaders in his pursuit of improved standards of living in Africa and elsewhere. The technocratic mindset was also on full display in a now-failed plan for charter cities in Honduras pushed by economist Paul Romer, and it’s a recurring theme in the columns of Thomas Friedman, whom development professionals love to hate.

In fact, even the driest definitions of human social development will inevitably carry a strong whiff of ideology, because the standards we set and the ways we measure progress toward them shape our behavior. Any definition of development implicitly or explicitly prioritizes some vision of the good life over others, and those visions generally entail some specific ideas about how to get there. The choice to include or expunge industrialization from a definition of “development,” for example, can influence what kinds of policies governments adopt in the pursuit or distribution of aid and loans tied to those metrics, and those policies can have vast consequences.

This is not a concern that’s unique to economics. In American political science, at least, when someone talks about “development,” they often mean to invoke a cluster of economic, social, and political changes that Seymour Martin Lipset called “modernization.” That cluster includes the improvements in standards of living that Bellemare emphasizes, but it also includes the industrialization Rowden spotlights, along with other things like urbanization, education, the spread of liberal values, and, perhaps most important, the emergence of a specific form of political democracy. In short, to “develop” was to follow the specific trail of socioeconomic transformation from primitivism into modernity that was blazed by Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that emphasis on mimicry has profoundly affected the ways the U.S. and Europe have tried to promote development.

When Lipset was writing, modernization theory’s chief intellectual and political competitor was Marxism. For Marxist theorists, Europe wasn’t a model to emulate; it was a bastion of economic inequality and plutocratic “democracy” that would eventually and inevitably collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. Industrialization was a critical feature of capitalism’s late stages that enabled maximal exploitation of labor by capital. It was both bad and good—bad because of the depths of exploitation it entailed, but good because it meant the end was nigh.

Of course, it was the USSR and its European client regimes that actually collapsed, and in the two decades since, almost all of the purportedly communist states left in the world have abandoned their commitment to Marxism and adopted variations on the capitalist theme instead. That turn in international political economy has hardly killed class-conscious theory, however. Although the strict Hegelian version of Marxism is rarely seen nowadays, the concern with economic inequality and its political consequences remains a central theme in leftist politics. Flip this concern around, and we arrive at yet another definition of development. For many leftists today, development is about the spread of social justice, and the essence of social justice is not wealth but fairness. Industrialization, electoral democracy, and economic expansion are not things to be valued in themselves but means (or, in some cases, obstacles) to these deeper ends.

Economic growth, modernization, and social justice are probably the three most prominent conceptualizations of development today, but they certainly aren’t the only ones. You might not think of libertarianism as a theory of development, but in an important sense it is. For libertarians, the good life is understood as one in which individuals are free to do as they please within only the sparest of constraints. Here again, industry, democracy, and growth are all beside the point. Liberty is the goal, and social and political changes that expand freedom can be understood as developmental gains. This idea finds one of its sharpest expressions in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, which that organization deliberately presents as an alternative to conventional measures focused on specific outcomes like poverty and education rates.

All of which is a very long-winded reminder that no conceptualization of development can exist without an ideological foundation. That would be like a shadow without a light source, a hole when there is no surface. To talk about “development” is to set goals for human social improvement, and the choices we make in setting those goals are inherently normative. We can’t escape this circle, so we might as well be explicit about it.

PS. Yes, I’m aware this has all been said a thousand times before, and often better. I decided to write the post anyway because it helped me organize some of my own thinking on the subject, and because the occasional reminder still can’t hurt.

How (Not) to Bring Democracy to China

Over at Foreign Policy, Yasheng Huang’s got an essay up called “The Key To Bringing Democracy to China” that’s so much wrong, I’ve just got to respond.

Huang’s argument is this: You won’t get China to democratize by making moral claims about human rights, because, for cultural reasons, those arguments don’t resonate there. To sell China’s pragmatic elites on democracy, you need to convince them it’s in their country’s best interests to democratize. The way to do that is to explain all the practical benefits democracy will bring.

On why liberal claims about universal rights won’t resonate in China, Huang writes:

The reason is a deep gulf of values. The Chinese have a utilitarian concept of “rights” — that they should advance the greatest good for the greatest number of people — in contrast to the Western view of rights as protections against encroachments on the disenfranchised few.

And on what would work better:

It’s time for the United States to pivot to a new approach toward influencing China’s political future: explaining that democracy produces concrete benefits such as balanced growth, stability, and personal security — even for top Communist Party officials. This performance-based argument will resonate with many of China’s economic and intellectual elites and may have a chance to influence the thinking of Xi Jinping and his fellow top officials.

What’s the problem? For starters, the national essentialism. “The Chinese have”?!? There is no way that the 1.3 billion people living in China today are all utilitarians, just as there’s no way all “Westerners” are liberals. Yes, there are central tendencies in social norms and values that cluster in time and space, but this level of essentialism is just silly.

From experience, I’m also deeply skeptical of claims that democracy won’t come to a particular place because it’s incompatible with the local culture. This exceptionalist claim has been made at one time or another about practically every state, religion, or region right up until the point when democratization happened there—and sometimes beyond. Latin American countries wouldn’t democratize because Catholicism. African countries couldn’t democratize because primitive tribalism. Asian countries wouldn’t democratize because Confucianism. Middle Eastern countries wouldn’t democratize because Islam. Well, whaddya know? It’s 2012, and we’ve now got democratic regimes in every one of those previously impervious bastions of backwardness. With a track record as poor as that, the cultural-compatibility theory of democratization should be taken out behind the barn and put down once and for all.

Finally, the idea that China’s political elites can be convinced to democratize because democracy brings social benefits is premised on a misunderstanding of how and why regime change actually happens. Generally speaking, authoritarian regimes survive because they produce real benefits for the elites who run them, and because it’s risky and hard for the rest of the people stuck living under those regimes to get organized to overthrow them. Every once in a while, though, enough people can overcome those steep odds and get sufficiently organized to compel elites to allow citizens to start picking their rulers. If they’re slow on the uptake, those elites might lose their shirts and maybe even their lives in the process. If they’re more nimble-minded, those elites will usually manage to protect most of their property and privileges, even as they (begrudgingly) accept the formalities of equal citizenship and open political competition. What they won’t care so much about under either scenario is how everyone else is doing.

The core problem with Huang’s salesmanship is that it conflates public and private goods. The “balanced growth, stability, and personal security” Huang sees as democracy’s selling points are all more or less public goods; access to them can’t be closed off, and their benefits would be widely shared, regardless of who produces them. By contrast, the wealth and status that Chinese elites enjoy now are private goods. Access to them is tightly restricted, and the more widely they’re shared, the less valuable they become. Crucially, their existence also depends on maintenance of the current system. If the Communist Party fragments or gets toppled, the private goods the Party now offers will disappear, and today’s elites will be forced to scramble anew for the privileges the current system was designed to produce. One guy’s corruption is another’s gravy train.

Under these circumstances, it’s hard to see why China’s elites would be persuaded by talk of the public benefits democracy might bring. To me, this jawboning strategy seems a bit like trying to sell a Prius to Ferrari driver by talking about how much less pollution it makes. As far as I can tell, the only way to sell democracy to any particular batch of authoritarian elites is to convince them that they and their families and friends will personally suffer if they don’t hurry up and get out of the way, and that outcome is often only weakly related to the public goods Huang lists. If you’re wondering just how weak that relationship can get, just take a gander at Zimbabwe or Angola.

Oh, and by the way: U.S. policymakers have been talking to autocrats about the economic benefits of democratization for years. Like, decades, even. If it hasn’t already convinced leaders in China—and Russia, and Saudi Arabia, and Cambodia, and…well, you get the picture—I’m not sure why it would suddenly start to work now.

Prospects for Political Liberalization in North Korea

Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab has just posted an essay of mine on why the odds that North Korea might undergo a “thaw” of sorts in the next few years aren’t so bad. The top-line judgment:

Improbable does not mean impossible. Maybe this time really will be different. The U.S.S.R. wasn’t supposed to loosen the screws, and then it did. The Burmese junta was supposed to have battened down the hatches when it crushed the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and look where we are now, just a few years later. Although the safe money’s still on continuity in North Korea, there are sound reasons to believe the chances for political liberalization in the near future are improving.

Those “sound reasons” have to do with trade-offs inherent in the political economy of authoritarian rule, a topic I also discussed on this blog last fall in a post about Burma. Dictators want to preempt or squash domestic political threats, but they don’t like having to pay so much for security, and all that monitoring and repression trips up their economies, too. Those dilemmas mean that dictators might sometimes decide to relax repression when their opposition is weak and their economies are languishing, as is the case in North Korea today.

If you’re interested, please take a look at the piece in FP and let me know what you think. For more academic treatments of this topic, check out the 2007 conference paper on which I based my essay and this article by Georgy Egorov, Sergei Guriev, and Konstantin Sonin from the November 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review.

“State Failure” Has Failed. How About Giving “State Collapse” a Whirl?

Foreign Policy magazine recently published the 2012 edition of the Fund for Peace‘s Failed States Index (FSI), and the response in the corner of the international-studies blogosphere I inhabit has been harsh. Scholars have been grumbling about the Failed States Index for years, but the chorus of academic and advocacy voices attacking it seems to have grown unusually large and loud this year. In an admirable gesture of of fair play, Foreign Policy ran one of the toughest critiques of the FSI on its own web site, where Elliot Ross of the blog Africa is a Country wrote,

We at Africa is a Country think Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace should either radically rethink the Failed States Index, which they publish in collaboration each year, or abandon it altogether. We just can’t take it seriously: It’s a failed index.

As Ross and many others argue, the core problem with the FSI is that it defines state failure very broadly, and in a way that seems to privilege certain forms of political stability over other aspects of governance and quality of life that the citizens in those states may prize more highly. In a 2008 critique of the “state failure” concept [PDF] that nicely anticipated all of the recent sturm und drang around the FSI, Chuck Call wrote that

The ‘failed states’ concept—and related terms like ‘failing’, ‘fragile’, ‘stressed’ and ‘troubled’ states—has become more of a liability than an asset. Foundations and think tanks have rushed to fund work on ‘failing’ states, resulting in a proliferation of multiple, divergent and poorly defined uses of the term. Not only does the term ‘failing state’ reflect the schoolmarm’s scorecard according to linear index defined by a univocal Weberian endstate, but it has also grown to encompass states as diverse as Colombia, East Timor, Indonesia, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Iraq, and the Sudan.

In that essay, Call advocates abandoning the now-hopelessly-freighted concept of “state failure” in favor of a narrower focus on “state collapse”—that is, situations “where no authority is recognisable either internally to a country’s inhabitants or externally to the international community.” I agree.

In fact, in 2010, while still working as research director for the U.S. Government–funded Political Instability Task Force, I led a small research project that aimed to develop a workable definition of state collapse and coding guidelines that would allow researchers to know it when they see it. The project stopped short of producing a global, historical data set, but the coding guidelines were road-tested and refined, and I think the end results have some value. In light of the FSI brouhaha, I’ve posted the results of that project on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) in hopes that they might be useful to a broader audience.

In those materials—a concept paper and a set of coding guidelines—I argue that we can get to a more workable concept by moving away from Max Weber’s aspirational vision of modern states as legitimate and orderly bureaucracies. Instead, I think we get further when we recognize that real-world states are a specific kind of political organization associated with a particular realization of global politics. That realization—the “Westphalian order,” or just “the international system”—constitutes states and delegates certain forms of political authority to them, but national governments in the real world vary widely in their ability to exercise that authority. When internationally recognized governments cease to exist, or their actual authority is badly circumscribed, we can say that the state has collapsed. That kind of collapse can happen in two different ways: fragmentation and disintegration.

When the failure to rule involves the national government’s territorial reach, we might call it collapse by fragmentation. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes final authority within a specific territory and international recognition of that authority, so situations in which large swaths of a state’s territory are effectively governed by organized political challengers whose authority is not internationally recognized represent a form of collapse. In practical terms, these situations usually arise in one of two ways: either 1) a rebel group violently pushes state agents out of a particular area, or 2) a regional government unilaterally proclaims its autonomy or independence and becomes the de facto sovereign authority in that region. In either situation, the rival group directly and publicly challenges the national government’s claim to sovereignty and effectively becomes the supreme political authority in that space. State military forces may still operate in these areas, but they do so in an attempt to reassert control that has already been lost, as indicated by the primacy of the rival organization in day-to-day governance…

State collapse also occurs when the national government fails to enforce its authority in the absence of a rival claimant to sovereignty. This type of failure might be called state collapse by disintegration. The ideal of domestic sovereignty presumes that a central government is capable not just of making rules but also of enforcing them. Dramatic failures of a state’s enforcement capabilities are indicated by widespread lawlessness and disorder, such as rioting, looting, civil violence, and vigilantism. In the extreme, central governments will sometimes disappear completely, but this rarely occurs. More often, a national government will continue to operate, but its rules will be ignored in some portions of its putative territory.

To distinguish state collapse from other forms of political instability and disorder, we have to establish some arbitrary thresholds beyond which the failure is considered catastrophic. Saying focused on the core dimensions of domestic sovereignty—territory and order—I do this as follows:

A state collapse occurs when a sovereign state fails to provide public order in at least one-half of its territory or in its capital city for at least 30 consecutive days. A sovereign state is regarded as failing to provide public order in a particular area when a) an organized challenger, usually a rebel group or regional government, effectively controls that area; b) lawlessness pervades in that area; or c) both. A state is considered sovereign when it is granted membership in the U.N. General Assembly.

If you’re interested, you can find more specific language on how to assess challenger control and lawlessness in the coding guidelines.

Applying this definition to the world today, I see only a handful of states that are clearly collapsed and just a few more that might be. In the “clearly collapsed” category, I would put Libya, Mali, Somalia, and Yemen. In the “probably collapsed” category, I would put Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Those judgments are based on cursory knowledge of those cases, however, and I would be interested to hear what others think about where this label does (Chad? Haiti? Ivory Coast? Sudan? South Sudan?) or does not (Afghanistan? Mali?) fit. Either way, the list is much shorter and, I believe, more coherent than the 20-country sets the Failed States Index identifies as “critical” and “in danger.”

More important, this is a topic that still greatly interests me, so I would love to have this conceptual work critiqued, put to use, or both. Fire away!

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