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Want a better democracy? Build better primary schools

Young Indian children play in a classroom at a school in Lucknow, India, on Oct. 31, 2011.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/Rajesh Kumar Singh/Associated Press

As a wave of nation-building sweeps across North Africa and the Middle East, those striving for democracies would do well to keep education high on their priorities -- especially for young children.

Better primary schooling leads to a more robust democracy, though the reverse isn't true, according to a recent working paper from the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research.

Fabrice Murtin, an OECD economist in Paris, and Romain Wacziarg, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, compared 74 countries' democracy scores from 1870 to 2000 with their educational attainment.

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The economists found that, in high-income countries, about half of the average variation in democracy came from better primary schooling. Increased levels of secondary and post-secondary education, however, showed little effect on a country's democracy.

Why the importance of a child's first few years? It's when citizens learn to read and literacy rates can be linked to political participation, the authors posit. As well, mass enrolment in higher education only came up in high-income countries in the last quarter of the 20th century -- where democracy was already firmly established, and there were little gains to be made.

The authors also compared income to democracy, and found higher per capita GDP had a far smaller effect than schooling. In fact, while income was significant in some cases, the economists found that primary schooling was important in every period they studied.

(Another NBER working paper from earlier in the year found that there is sometimes a statistically significant link between income and democracy.)

Mr. Murtin and Mr. Wacziarg then reversed their analysis - if primary schooling and, to a lesser extent, income affected the level of democracy, could strengthened political institutions have led to richer and better educated citizens?

No, according to their evidence, when you control for other factors (such as a country's level of development).

The authors used Polity IV data for their democracy measurements. The index aims to measure governing authorities by quantifying values such as constraints on executive power and political competition.

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About the Author
Assistant editor, Ottawa

Chris Hannay is assistant editor in The Globe's Ottawa bureau and author of the daily Politics newsletter. Previously, he was The Globe and Mail's digital politics editor, community editor for news and sports (working with social media and digital engagement) and a homepage editor. More

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