Why does research on democracy support neglect success?

Susan Dodsworth, Research Fellow – University of Birmingham 

If we focus too much on examples of failure, how can we learn to succeed?

This question sparked debate on 9 June, at a ‘Policy Day’ hosted by the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department (IDD). The Policy Day featured research from the Political Economy of Democracy Promotion Project – a collaboration between IDD and Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD).

On the day, Duncan Green – a Senior Strategic Advisor to Oxfam – pointed out that the solution to getting researchers and practitioners to work better together is not always more research. I agree with Duncan’s argument that practitioners may often benefit more from some kind of ‘institutional memory support,’ than new research products. However, I also think there are questions to be asked about where academic research tends to focus, and how that might limit the utility of that research to policy makers. Specifically, we need to be wary of the tendency to focus on failure, and pay more attention to cases of success.

Caryn Peiffer, a Research Fellow at IDD, dealt with this in her presentation on anti-corruption initiatives – pointing out that research tends to focus on why such initiatives have failed. In contrast, her project on ‘Islands of Integrity’ is deliberately engineered to explain success, focussing on institutions that have made a surprising degree of progress in implementing anti-corruption reforms. As Caryn pointed out, it’s worth paying attention to these ‘positive outliers’ because they may help policy makers to design better interventions in the future.

This struck a chord because – just like research on anti-corruption – research on democracy support often centres on explaining why things went wrong, or just failed to have any impact at all. There are several reasons for this. For a start, academics worry they’ll undermine their credibility if they look like ‘cheerleaders’ for policy makers.  There are also more fundamental reasons grounded in methodological concerns. Academic ‘best practice’ is to avoid selecting cases on the basis of their outcomes (the ‘dependent variable’), but this sometimes creates problems. When dealing with something like democracy support – where the difficulty of the task makes success rare – this means we look at failure far more often than we look at success.

This has been a big issue in research on closing civil society space. Governments around the world – some already quite authoritarian, some less so – are increasingly using a wide variety of tactics to restrict, control and harass civil society organizations, particularly those seeking to improve the quality of democracy in their countries. So far, most research on this topic has focussed on cases like Russia, Egypt and Ethiopia, where efforts to defend that space have clearly failed. This goes some way to explaining why we’re still struggling to develop sustainable, long-term interventions that ‘get ahead of the curve’ (a problem that Richard Youngs recently pointed out in a review for the European Parliament).

Our project’s next policy paper for WFD – which we’ll be launching in Brussels this autumn – will tackle this problem head-on, paying more to cases in which international and domestic actors have worked together to persuade parliamentarians to defend civil society. This will not only ensure we’re getting the full picture, it will make our findings more valuable to policy makers. It’s useful to be told what not to do, but – ultimately – it’s far more useful to have advice about what to do instead.


(Photo: Democracy success story: following the 2011 Tunisian revolution, the country held the first direct presidential election in 2014 © Aya Chebbi (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence))

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