Scorecards That Rank Freedom

By Lehrer, Eli | Insight on the News, February 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

Scorecards That Rank Freedom


Lehrer, Eli, Insight on the News


All men may be created equal, but in most countries some are more equal than others. Where are economic and other human rights most protected? Here are answers.

Arch Puddington takes pride in his organization's efforts to quantify the unquantifiable. "I wasn't around when they started trying to measure freedom," says Puddington, the vice president for research at the New York-based Freedom House. "But my understanding was that, at the time, there was a lot of skepticism as to whether the project could really do anything. People didn't know what it really meant."

Efforts to rank the relative freedom in all of the world's nations, however, have gained attention and credibility since Freedom House issued its first Freedom in the World survey in 1978. The annual study, widely reported in the media, ranks all of the world's nations using a complex scale intended to measure everything from respect for due process to freedom of the press.

Although it only represents a small portion of Freedom House's work, the survey attracts by far the most media attention, regularly showing up on nightly network news broadcasts and in newspaper infographics. Even the State Department incorporates the survey into its efforts to analyze other nations. Sparked by this success, the Heritage Foundation began a similarly designed Index of Economic Freedom four years ago, and Freedom House conducts an independent survey of press freedom and has begun to gear up for a religious-freedom study due out late this year.

While definitions of freedom can be as slippery as mercury, the Freedom in the World study gained greater credibility in part because it uses criteria that most Westerners agree are appropriate indicators. "It's endlessly possible to criticize the way that we've structured the survey but, for the most part, we've gotten a good deal of respect for it," Puddington tells Insight. Although other human-rights groups do their own measurements, most of them at least look at the Freedom House index. "Officially, we do all our own stuff. Unofficially, their reports are carefully studied around here and we sometimes even crib from them" says a former staff member, referring to Amnesty International. "The trends that they identify are often quite important for us."

Puddington argues that the report has had a real effect. "Getting the information out there certainly has made a difference, particularly for some smaller countries," he says. In its 1999 report based on data collected during 1998, Freedom House found political freedom on the march around the globe. Under the group's criteria, 88 of the world's 191 countries were classified as free, an all-time high. Three unfree countries -- Nigeria, Indonesia and Sierra Leone -- improved their standing enough to join the ranks of a middle category that the group calls "partly free," while India and several smaller countries became "free." A great many countries still were ranked as "not free" with communist countries such as North Korea and other dictatorships such as Burma coming out near the bottom.

The process of creating the report, Puddington says, begins by assigning countries to area experts who sift through reports from human-rights groups and local and international media as well as governments themselves. Then the experts rank countries from one ("quite free") to seven ("very repressed"). Unlike the Heritage Foundation, Freedom House doesn't assign fine gradations that tend to result in multiway ties on the lists.

"We try to make it as regular and scientific a process as we can" says Puddington. "But for it really to work well, we need to make sure that the people we get to do it have really strong expertise in the areas they use and can study things closely."

The Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom is new in the field of freedom measuring. Unlike Freedom House's survey, which uses measures of human rights that most Westerners would recognize, the Heritage Foundation index uses explicitly ideological criteria. …

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