Vanderbilt graduates are everywhere, even at the tip of the African continent. During my last semester at Vanderbilt, I met someone working for Manna Project who has a friend in Cape Town doing his master’s degree. That friend is Elliot Mitchell, a 2005 Vandy graduate finishing up his master’s work at the University of Cape Town in Democracy and Governance, something of great interest to me and my project! Elliot and I have been able to meet up several times and he’s been great in getting me connected with professors and fellow students all doing work on democracy in Africa!
I am astounded by the number of organizations and people focused on the issue of democracy around the world and democracy promotion. Elliot told me about something called Afrobarometer, which measures people’s perceptions of democracy in Africa. The Afrobarometer (www.afrobarometer.org) is an independent, nonpartisan research project that measures the social, political, and economic atmosphere in Africa. Afrobarometer surveys are conducted in more that a dozen African countries and are repeated on a regular cycle. Because the instrument asks a standard set of questions, countries can be systematically compared. Trends in public attitudes are tracked over time. Results are shared with decision makers, policy advocates, civic educators, journalists, researchers, donors and investors, as well as average Africans who wish to become more informed and active citizens.
Afrobarometer has had some interesting findings about public opinion in Africa towards democracy. One of the most relevant findings for me is that for the Africans surveyed, democracy means freedom. When asked “what, if anything, does democracy mean to you?” most Africans refer to civil liberties, especially freedom of speech. They also see democracy as meaning “government by the people.” In this survey, Africans rarely associated democracy with voting and elections.
Other findings from the Afrobarometer are that support for democracy is widespread in Africa, and Africans expect democracy to deliver basic welfare. This means that Africans are predisposed to judge the performance of democracy primarily in how well democracy delivers benefits in the socioeconomic sphere. People are also not fully satisfied with how democracy works in their countries, and unemployment is high on people’s development agendas.
If you are interested in the methodology or more quantitative analysis of the results, head to the Afrobarometer website. For me, I’m more interested in the implications of these findings and why people responded as they did, which isn’t really answered through these studies. I am especially interested in why people immediately associate democracy with freedom, something I have come across in all countries and continents that I have visited. I guess my quest to more fully understand freedom must continue!