Can Democracy Deliver?
By Natalie Samarasinghe
The 2023 Open Society Barometer bears good news: people around the world believe in democracy and human rights. Our Barometer surveyed over 36,000 people in 30 countries, representing a wide spectrum of regions, political systems, and income levels—painting a picture of the attitudes, concerns, and hopes of 5.5 billion people.
We asked about democracy in a number of ways, and however we framed the question, the results held. Strong majorities want to live in a democratic state, believe that democracies contribute more to global cooperation, and do not think that authoritarian states can more effectively deliver what they most need. But the survey also revealed a troubling lack of faith in democracy among young people compared with older respondents surveyed, underscoring the need for democracy to better deliver to improve people’s lives.
People also showed their compassion and belief in universal human rights. They identify personally with these values and believe that human rights have been a force for good in the world. An overwhelming 95 percent said governments should respect the rights of those who look different from themselves—with similarly high numbers for refugees, LGBT people and minorities.
Overall, there was little evidence of the “clash of values” that populists put forward. Instead, we found that people everywhere are worried their governments cannot deliver on bread-and-butter issues. Over half of the respondents think their country is headed in the wrong direction, and they’re feeling the impact. A shocking 49 percent said they had struggled to feed themselves within the last year—a number that holds true in countries as different as Bangladesh and the U.S. Even greater numbers (58 percent) fear political unrest will lead to violence in the coming year, and nearly three-quarters think climate change will affect them personally. Politicians were the group they least trusted to work in their interest.
Perhaps the most alarming finding is that young people hold the least faith in democracy: just 57 percent believe democracy is preferable to any form of government, compared to 71 percent of older respondents. Younger respondents were the demographic most likely to believe authoritarian states can deliver on priorities, or that doing away with checks and balances from elections or legislatures is a good way for strong leaders to govern. As a generation facing compounding global crises, it is understandable that young people are questioning democracy’s ability to deliver. But deliver it must.
People support democracy and human rights. They care deeply about climate change and worry about their safety and livelihoods. And they support progressive solutions, from tackling the debt burden faced by low-income states to boosting aid and climate finance and increasing safe legal routes for migrants.
Most of all, after years of uncertainty and strife, people want politicians to rise to their expectations.
Natalie Samarasinghe is the global director for advocacy at the Open Society Foundations.