The debut of our new Lab Reports

The debut of our new Lab Reports

Dear DemLab Readers: 

Today we’re pleased to announce the start of a new Democracy Lab feature: A series of in-depth country studies that we call "Lab Reports." Because the headlines don’t always do justice to the complexity of the issues involved in democratic transitions, we decided that it makes sense for us to try our hand at more systematic analysis. 

In the first half of this year we’ve decided to focus our coverage on five countries: Burma, Kenya, Libya, Venezuela, and Ukraine. Burma and Venezuela are stories that we’ve already covered extensively, but there’s clearly still a lot to be told on both counts. Libya is an important Arab Spring country where the problems involved in the transition to democracy haven’t always received the attention they deserve. Kenya, which has suffered considerable political violence in the past, faces a crucial presidential election this spring. And Ukraine confronts major political challenges that are likely to have a lasting effect on the viability of democratic institutions. 

We’re going to divide up our Lab Reports along the following lines: 

We’ll lead off our coverage with an overview of the situation in each country. These overviews will offer a snapshot of the general political and economic situation, outline the main challenges, and familiarize readers with the most important personalities. 

Then, in no particular order, we’ll follow up with reports on each of the following categories: 

We’ll analyze the formal and informal structures of government, examining the nature of executive, legislative, and judicial power and exploring how things actually get done. This should help to provide a clearer picture of the nature of the reforms that face the country if it is to make a successful transition to a more open society in the years to come. 

We’ll report on the economy. We’ll provide a clear diagnosis of strengths and weaknesses, summarize pathologies, and prescribe possible remedies. 

We’ll look at what might be called "alternate power centers" — those important sources of authority that exist outside of the formal machinery of administration. Extra-governmental power can flow from the military, organized crime, well-connected business cronies (oligarchs), or tribes. Such factors often evade straightforward analysis, but failing to take them into account can result in highly distorted conclusions about the realities of political and economic life. 

We’ll examine the media landscape. We’ll look at important institutions and assess the extent to which they are free or a constrained. How a society communicates with its own members is crucial to any reform effort. An open society without free media is hard to imagine. 

And, finally, we’ll try to provide a clear picture of civil society. No polity can be considered truly open if its members are incapable of organizing to defend their own aims and interests outside of the structures of government. That’s why experts generally consider non-governmental organizations, voluntary associations, private religious groups, and charitable and humanitarian activities to be crucial players in any democratic transition. 

We hope that you’ll find these reports stimulating and provocative — and we welcome your responses. As always, if you have any comments or feedback that you’d like to share, please write to us directly at, or engage with us on Twitter or Facebook.