Former Wildcat and current Temple University professor Sarah Bush returned to the Buffett Institute on Monday to give a presentation, “The Politics of Rating Freedom: The Role of Ideological Affinity in the Puzzling Authority of the Freedom in the World Ratings.” Bush explored the validity and implications of the Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, particularly in relation to the liberal democratic biases at play. The event, organized by the Security Studies Working Group, was attended by approximately 20 people, including faculty and political science graduate students.
The Freedom in the World report, launched in 1973 by one man, Raymond Gastil, measures the amount of civil liberties and political rights of individual nations and territories, on a scale of 1 to 7. Each nation is then deemed Free, Partially Free or Not Free and then ranked by determined democratic health. Since then, the survey has been widely embraced as an empirical standard by members of academia, professional media and even policymakers.
Bush’s research, however, takes a critical look at the validity of such rankings, which she says “lack rigor and transparency, relative to the alternatives.” The reports lack a clear coding criteria, Bush says, reinforced by the fact that scores and ratings were developed separately. To bolster her argument, she pointed out that between 1990 and 2006, when the Freedom House team expanded, thus diversifying their coders, the report did not become more authoritative and states did not rely more heavily on the ratings.
Second, she examined the relative integrity of the report. She cited increasing reliance on government funding (the federal government supplies approximately 75 percent of their budget), which detracts from Freedom House’s claims of independence. Further, significant portions of the Freedom House staff are either former or current key policymakers in the U.S. government. Despite actively pursuing financial support from the U.S. government and experiencing conflicts of interest in personnel, Bush said, the report’s overall authority remained unaffected.
According to Bush, the report is frequently used by not only U.S. media and policymakers, but also governments of weaker, developing states like India and Portugal. Some of these states, conscious of their portrayal in international – allegedly objective – material have either criticized or tried to influence their Freedom House rankings.
Bush’s core argument, though, hinges on the idea that the Freedom House’s ratings, despite being relatively authoritative (particularly in the U.S.), are in fact subject to biases that corrupt its attempts at neutrality. The report, she said, “conceptualizes freedom in terms of liberal democracy” that are “consistently biased in favor of the U.S.” and “probably shared among foreign policy elites.” Such biases, then, affect U.S. foreign policymaking, specifically in terms of allotted foreign aid.
“The Freedom House indicator that she presented is a very powerful indicator that, for example, determines how much money developing countries get," said Political Science Assistant Professor Marina Henke, who is also co-director of the Security Studies Working Group. "The U.S. government looks at these indicators and sees ‘Oh, Botswana made progress in democracy’ and then Botswana gets more. What we basically found out today, and what Sarah Bush presented was that the indicator is highly biased. Basically, it doesn’t really capture what happens in the country, it’s just what some people in the U.S. government think happens in the country, so they use it to justify foreign policy dispersement.”
Bush also introduced competing mechanisms to her argument. She acknowledged that the ratings’ usage appears to be stagnating, that U.S. government usage of the ratings is not guaranteed and that non-U.S. states have been propped by the adoption of the ratings.
Ultimately, Bush said her research "proposes a new theory about where private authority comes from and why some rules are legitimate."
After her presentation, audience members were able to converse freely with Bush. Bush discussed topics with the audience that included the possible role of big business interference, differentiation between the mainstream and foreign policy establishment, and the relative distinction between an administration’s overarching agenda and the “quieter, day-to-day” managing of foreign aid. Authority as a concept itself was examined from multiple political dimensions.
“My own research is looking at authority in international governance and looking at the authority of financial actors, so a different set of private actors," said Erin Lockwood, a political science graduate student. "I very selfishly found the engagement with questions of how non-state actors, especially their indicators and their measurement tools, come to be seen as authoritative by state actors and as being so closely related to powers of governance [to be fascinating].”
Bush opened the floor for comments and critiques on her research, which was treated as fluid and receptive to new improvements, while answering questions from the audience.
“I disagree a little with the mechanism," said Henke. "So her key argument is that there’s this ideological affinity between the people who work for Freedom House, which is an independent NGO and the U.S. government, but I actually think there’s lobbying activity. So it’s not that just they come together because they like each other, but it is one of the entities offering something to the other."