The First Lab Results Are In

Democracy Lab is celebrating its first anniversary. Here are some of the things we've learned over the past year -- and where we're headed in year two.

By , the former editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in partnership with Legatum Institute.
Jordan Pix/Getty Images
Jordan Pix/Getty Images
Jordan Pix/Getty Images

Last spring I spent an exhilarating week prowling around Burma as the people of that long-benighted country prepared for their first genuinely free election in decades. Well, some of the people, at least. As elections go, the one that took place there on April 1, 2012 was a very limited affair, with only a handful of seats in the country’s military-dominated parliament up for grabs.

Last spring I spent an exhilarating week prowling around Burma as the people of that long-benighted country prepared for their first genuinely free election in decades. Well, some of the people, at least. As elections go, the one that took place there on April 1, 2012 was a very limited affair, with only a handful of seats in the country’s military-dominated parliament up for grabs.

But no one really seemed to care about that. What mattered was that, for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, Burmese were getting a chance to have a say over their rulers — and it was no surprise when those who had the opportunity voted overwhelmingly for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the lionized (lionessed?) leader of the long-persecuted opposition, to represent them in their country’s national assembly. In a Rangoon slum, I watched as ecstatic supporters of her National League for Democracy rallied for their local candidate. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and should remind us all just what a marvelous thing a vote can be.

Elections, of course, do not a democracy make — as we’ve learned again and again over the course of the past year. Burma has made small steps toward freedom, but it’s still a giant leap away from democracy. That will require the creation of solid institutions (such as independent courts and a civilian-controlled military) and an authentic general election. In that respect, some of the countries of the Arab Spring, which now have true elected governments, are much farther ahead. Yet they too — as the recent violence in Egypt demonstrates — still have a long way to go. And that’s not even to mention the bloody tug of war in Syria.

The past year, in short, has been a busy time for Democracy Lab. Over the past 12 months we’ve scrutinized uprisings, elections, and civil wars. We’ve eavesdropped on activists and we’ve peeked over the shoulders of leaders at work. We’ve surveilled secret policemen and celebrated unsung heroes. We’ve explored the immense problem of corruption and its potential to frustrate the rule of law. We’ve examined the power of the drive for dignity (Francis Fukuyama) and the longing for property rights (Hernando de Soto).

There’s been a lot of ground to cover. The world remains a place of raucous transformation — and yet we still have a hard time figuring out precisely how such change occurs. We’ve got masses of data. We’ve got illuminating analyses. And we have countless historical examples to mine — not least a raft of insights from former South African president F.W. de Klerk. Yet the collapse of regimes (and the triumph of unlikely underdogs) continues to test our powers of prediction.

Democracy Lab has made it our mission to illuminate the mechanisms behind democratic transitions around the world. That’s why FP and the Legatum Institute got together to bring Democracy Lab to life back in January 2012. As our original mission statement explained, we aim to embrace the complexity of the subject by tackling it from every possible angle.

In that respect, we owe a particular debt to the contributors to Transitions, our collective blog. We suspected that our reporting on transitional societies would be greatly enriched by adding more voices from within them, and we haven’t been disappointed. Burmese activist turned political scientist Min Zin has guided us through the tumultuous changes in his home country with a distinctive mix of empathy and analytic rigor. Mohamed El Dahshan has reported on events in Egypt and around the Middle East with signature passion. Juan Nagel and Francisco Toro have dissected the ups and downs of their native Venezuela with sarcastic verve. Jackee Budesta Batanda has given Ugandans a voice of their own at moments when the views of outsiders seemed to overwhelm the story. And Endy Bayuni has written eloquently on the challenges that still face democracy in Indonesia.

To that same end, we’ve also made a point of embracing collaboration wherever we can. Our colleagues at the Legatum Institute have supplied some of our chunkiest reporting on economic topics, ranging from the preconditions for prosperity to the reasons for stalling growth in Argentina. (Our Economics Editor Peter Passell, who works at Legatum, has commissioned several unlikely hits — such as this one on the bright future of the Philippines and the disappointments of Vietnam.) We’ve also forged a joint venture with Princeton’s Innovations for Successful Societies, which has allowed us to mine its wealth of rigorous case studies for valuable lessons on governance and political change.

We’ve learned a lot along the way: for example, that our understanding of the mechanics of transitions is bound to be incomplete if we focus only on the heroes — we also have to delve into the motives of the darker characters as well. We’ve learned that the success of liberalization depends not only on outright victories for democrats but can also assume more subtle and ambiguous forms. We’ve learned that coming to terms with a bloody past can actually be complicated by a democratic present. And our study of relevant examples vividly demonstrates that small, practical compromises can often have outsized effects.

But we haven’t learned only from our reporting. We’ve learned just as much from you, our readers, who have engaged intensively with the stories we’ve tried to tell. (Some of you, indeed, have gone from being fans to contributors.) To our surprise, we’ve discovered that you’re more than willing to embrace in-depth coverage of stories that are often missed by more traditional media. So, for example, our debate on the nature of economic growth in Africa (here, here, and here) has met with a remarkable response. The same was true of our pro and contra on last fall’s elections in Georgia (here and here). Off-the-beaten-path topics such as an Egyptian activist’s defense of blasphemy and a profile of “private diplomat” Carne Ross also resonated with readers.

Perhaps one of the most notable successes was the project we dubbed “16 Ways to Save Burma,” which offered a set of policy prescriptions for the future of the country. The enthusiastic response it received (above all within Burma itself) has encouraged us to launch a new series of in-depth reports on a select group of countries (Burma, Kenya, Libya, Ukraine, and Venezuela). We’ll eschew cursory glances at the latest headlines in favor of penetrating looks at the political and economic systems in these societies and their prospects for future liberalization. “Lab Reports” will debut next week.

But we don’t want to stop there. Please let us know what you think. Send us tweets. Let us know your preferences for coverage on our Facebook page. And feel free to email us directly with comments and suggestions at our dedicated address (democracylabfp@gmail.com). After all, that’s how democracy is supposed to work. We’ll all be richer for it.

Christian Caryl is the former editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in partnership with Legatum Institute. Twitter: @ccaryl

More from Foreign Policy

The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.
The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.

America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose

Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.

A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.
A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.

The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy

The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.

Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.
Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.

Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now

In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.

U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.
U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.

Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet

As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.