What is the level of political and social engagement of citizens in the American continent? How are governments and societies dealing with issues such as freedom of expression, women’s participation in politics, protection of minorities’ rights and the guarantee of access to public services? Seeking answers for those and other questions, an unprecedented research by the Humanitas360 Institute, developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the research and analysis division of The Economist Group, publisher of the British magazine The Economist, evaluated the level of citizen participation in seven countries in the American continent – Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the United States, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela.
The study shows that, in spite of obstacles to the full exercise of citizenship in the region such as the low numbers of women in politics and few civil society organizations, in almost all the countries, there has been an increase in people’s willingness to participate in political protests and to sign petitions – in some of them, those levels have been at their highest compared to the past ten years.
The America’s Civic Empowerment Index is the first study about this topic that allows an ample and detailed comparative analysis between the countries. The index employs a similar methodology that was used in the Global Democracy Index, which has been produced by The EIU since 2006. The index crosses and analyses an extensive database of public and private organizations.
“The EIU has already been developing the Global Democracy Index, but it aims to evaluate the institutions and people directly linked to them. It is fundamental to analyze the population’s point of view in practical terms as well as their perception, so we can better understand this essential pillar of democracy, which is citizen participation,” said Patrícia Villela Marino, president of Humanitas360.
Three major groups of issues were taken into consideration in order to develop the index: 1) the legal conditions for citizen participation, 2) how citizenship is practically exercised, and 3) the population’s perception about the exercise of citizenship. Freedom of expression, voting, access to information, public services, gender equality, volunteerism, youth engagement and violence indexes were among the 22 indicators that were evaluated in each of those groups.
The America’s Civic Empowerment Index had the following ranking: 1st the United States, 2nd Chile, 3rd Colombia, 4th Mexico, 5th Brazil, 6th Guatemala, 7th Venezuela. Brazil’s ranking was majorly due to its low scores in issues such as citizen participation legislation, and the population’s perception about their exercise of citizenship. Nonetheless, a couple of citizenship indicators in the country were quite surprising including the high levels of young people’s engagement, and the highest rates of participation in protests and in public petitions in the region. The research brings other findings about the other countries including Mexico’s leading position in terms of women’s participation in the legislative branch, the high score of freedom of the press in Chile (the only country in the region that scores the same as the U.S.), and Colombia’s strong legislation to protect minorities. Venezuela is evaluated as a separate case due to difficulties found in the availability of data.
Below is a list of relevant insights revealed by the America’s Civic Empowerment Index:
Overall ranking of citizen empowerment in the Americas: 1st the United States, 2nd Chile, 3rd Colombia, 4th Mexico, 5th Brazil, 6th Guatemala, 7th Venezuela.
Brazil ranked 5th place and showed good standings in regard to practical citizen participation, but ranked fifth in regard to having legislation that promotes citizenship, and ranked last in regard to the population’s perception about the exercise of citizenship.
Brazil’s positive points are the high level of trust in the electoral process and the relatively high level of access to education. Among the negative points are the low number of women in elected offices, the population’s low trust in politics and in the judiciary branch, and the excessive use of force in repressing protests.
Rights that are guaranteed by law are not always perceived by the population. In Brazil, for example, the index verified the existence of legal protections for the exercise of citizenship, such as the right to freedom of expression. However, only 31.6% of Brazilians believe that they have the right amply respected.
Chile, the best-ranked Southern American country, stood out for the freedom of the press and an active civil society.
Mexico, which ranked fourth overall, faces challenges due to the violence in the country, the weakened government – which feeds into the population’s dissatisfaction – and the intimidations and deaths of journalists.
The United States led all categories, with indicators well ahead of other countries. Its strong civil engagement, accentuated after the election of Donald Trump, and legislation that guarantees protection of freedom of expression and protests are the country’s strengths. Other relevant factors are the high level of the population’s confidence in the judiciary branch, the police and public institutions.
The research also pointed out that, although confidence in democratic institutions is low in the region, levels of citizen participation have been increasing. In almost all evaluated countries, participation in protests and the willingness to sign public petitions are at the highest level of the past 10 years.
However, perceptions of citizen participation remain extremely low in the region, especially in comparison to the United States. The gap between the U.S. and other Latin American countries in category 3 (which measured popular perception) is much larger than those of the first two categories (which assessed the legal conditions for citizen participation and the application of those laws).