A United Nations report says some democratic countries are sliding back toward authoritarianism because of rising economic and social problems. The report by the U.N. Development Program also includes the agency's annual ranking of countries based on their levels of human development.
The report says that, in theory, the world is more democratic than it has ever been. One hundred forty of the world's nearly 200 countries now hold multi-party elections.
But, in practice, the report says only 82 countries are fully democratic in guaranteeing human rights, a free press and an independent judiciary. It says some countries that embraced at least some democracy at the end of the last century have returned to authoritarian rule, including Burma, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe.
The chief author of the report, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, noted that there is a growing sense in many countries that democracy has not delivered on its promises.
"I think there was an expectation that people fought for and won democracy in the hopes that this was really going to improve their lives," she says. "But, in fact, the record of the last decade is that alongside democratization, you have also had a lot of reversals on the social and economic front."
The report says 52 countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and the nations of the former Soviet Union, ended the past decade poorer than they began. Ms. Fukuda-Parr says many people disillusioned by what they consider the failure of democracy are urging a return to authoritarian rule. But she points out this is both dangerous and misguided.
"The prolonged economic and social decline under authoritarianism definitely beats any decline or economic catastrophe under democracy," said Ms. Fukuda-Parr. "Democracy basically does protect people against the extreme excesses of arbitrary rule of authoritarian regimes."
The report's annual Human Development Index shows East Asian economies have made major advances, but countries in Africa and the former Soviet Union have slipped.
Norway tops this year's rankings as the best of 173 countries around the world in terms of life expectancy, education, and income per person. The United States comes in sixth. Sierra Leone had the lowest score.