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Here are some questions that many of us are likely to ask or to be asked at some time:

  • What is the largest nation in the world in area? In population?
  • Are the people of the United States free? Healthy? Long-lived? Rich?
  • Is the government of the United States a democratic nation?
  • Is the government of the United States upright, rather than corrupt?

Although we may or may not know the answers, questions such as "What is the largest nation in the world in area?" appear to be simple. We could certainly figure out the answer to this question ourselves: We would simply use modern tools and techniques to measure the number of square miles (or hectares) occupied by all the territory within the boundaries of each nation in the world and then search our findings to see which resulting number is largest. Of course a few technical decisions would be required. In the case of one of the inevitable disputes about just where a certain national boundary lies, whose answer should we accept? In calculating the size of a nation's territory, should we count bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, or open ocean that may lie between island territories or off a nation's coast? And just when are we going to have the time and where are we going to find the money we would need to do all the measuring that would be required?

Naturally we all understand that we don't really have to do all the measuring and make all these technical decisions to find out which is the world's largest nation in area. All we really have to do is look up the answer in an authoritative source, one whose creators have already made the technical decisions necessary to provide us with the answer we seek. For example, if we looked up any given nation's area in the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) World Factbook 2005, we could access a table of territories rank ordered by area (http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/rankorder/2147rank.html). That table would tell us that the largest nation in the world is Russia (at just over 17 million square kilometers; 6.6 million square miles) followed by Canada (10 million square kilometers; 3.85 million square miles), the United States (just over 9.6 million square kilometers; 3.72 million square miles), China (just under 9.6 million square kilometers; 3.7 million square miles), and Brazil (8.5 million square kilometers; 3.29 million square miles). While we were at it, we could use the same source to discover that the largest nation in the world in population was China (1.3 billion people), followed by India (1.1 billion), the United States (296 million), Indonesia (242 million), and Brazil (186 million).

Answering even transparently simple questions is not as simple as it appears, and we rely on authoritative sources of data to give us answers. And yet questions about national area and population are simple and uncontroversial compared to many other questions that may interest us vitally. For example, many of us might answer in the affirmative to questions about whether the people of the United States are in general free, healthy, long-lived, and rich. We would be pretty sure that the United States was indeed democratic and relatively upright. But suppose we wanted to know whether the people of the United States were the freest, healthiest, or most long-lived in the world, or whether the United States was the most democratic or the least corrupt? Unless we were convinced that we already knew the answers and did not wish to be confused by any "facts," we would once again want to turn to authoritative sources to help find the information we needed to find the answers. To use these authoritative sources, we would again have to accept the definitions and technical decisions their creators had had to make to come up with the information we need to get our answers. This is always a characteristic and, perhaps, a limitation we must accept if we are to use such authoritative sources.

The rest of this article reviews several categories of the most useful authoritative sources of data about the nations and government of the world and the rights and duties of their citizens. But before we do so, perhaps we should answer the remaining questions with which we began. Are the people of the United States the world's freest? According to the rankings in Freedom in the World 2005, the United States falls in the category of the world's freest nations (along with forty-five others), so, according to one source we can use to answer this question, the answer is certainly "yes," or at least "they are as free as any other people in the world." Are the people of the United States the world's healthiest? On most such reasonable measures of a people's health the United States is a healthy nation, but not the healthiest in the world: The infant mortality rate of the United States, for example, is higher than that of forty-six other nations or territories that are rank ordered in the CIA's World Factbook 2005. Is the United States an upright or a corrupt nation? According to corruption perception surveys and indices compiled annually by researchers working with Transparency International, the United States was in 2004 tied for seventeenth among the 146 nations for which this source gives data. So most observers would agree that, on the basis of these data, the United States is (perceived to be) one of the world's "not corrupt" nations, but not the least corrupt in the world.

a general data source on government, politics, society, and economy

Far too many authoritative sources of data exist about the government, politics, societies and economies of the world's nations to cite or include each in the bibliography of this article. A good starting point, however—and one of the most useful general sources on many of these characteristics of the nations of the world—is the World Factbook, produced by the CIA. It is an outgrowth of the U.S. government's civilian intelligence operations that began in 1947. The World Factbook itself has been published since 1962 but was a classified (secret) document until 1971. Since then the CIA's World Factbook has been published each year as a unclassified printed volume intended for use by U.S. government officials but available for general purchase from the U.S. Government Printing Office. For several years, the current edition of the World Factbook has also been available via the World Wide Web as an online resource, which has greatly enhanced its usability and also has allowed the CIA to update it dynamically. The breadth of the information contained in the World Factbook's profiles is indicated by the major topics it treats. Following a brief background paragraph, the Factbook has sections presenting extensive facts about geography, people, government, economy, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues. It provides a map of the country and regional maps that put its location into context. The biggest limitation the World Factbook is that it presents its information in a relatively formal and nonjudgmental fashion. Users may come away from the Factbook knowing a lot more basic information about a nation, its government, and society but still feeling that they do not understand the nature of its government—the state of the rights and liberties of its citizens experience, for example.

citizen rights, democracy, and freedom

Another annual U.S. Government publication, the U.S. State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, usually called the Human Rights Reports differs distinctly from the World Factbook because it has the specific purpose of presenting comprehensive evaluative information about the state of citizen rights. The Human Rights Reports are explicitly judgmental with respect to their subject, that is, the human rights practices of the world's independent nations. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has issued the Human Rights Reports annually under a directive from the U.S. Congress since the early 1970s. They are available as printed volumes from the U.S. Government Printing Office, but reports since 1993 are also easily accessed online. Each country report begins with a summary of current political conditions affecting human rights. This introduction is followed by more detailed sections dealing (in the 2004 report, for example) with respect for the right to personal integrity, respect for civil liberties, respect for political rights, the right of citizens to change their government, governmental attitude regarding international and non-governmental investigation of alleged violations of human rights, discrimination, societal abuses, and trafficking in persons, and worker rights. In the past, the Human Rights Reports were criticized for alleged bias—they were accused of overlooking or minimizing human rights violations committed by allies of the United States. In the last fifteen years, however, accusations of such bias have diminished or disappeared.

Reports on the state of human rights in the world's nations are also produced by several important non-governmental organizations, notably Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others. Although they are usually shorter, Amnesty International's annual reports mirror those of the U.S. State Department in that they are very comprehensive in their coverage—in recent years their reports contain a specific report on the vast majority, if not all, of the world nations—and are available both in print and online. Amnesty's reports also are available since 1975, although the reports for earlier years are much less comprehensive in coverage than recent reports. The annual and other reports of Human Rights Watch can be accessed online as well. Because neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch is government supported, one can assume that their reports are not likely to be shaped by possible policy biases that might affect government-sponsored reports, although this does not rule out the possibility that their reports might reflect other biases held by the organizations' staff or financial supporters.

Another important source of information on citizen rights and responsibilities is Freedom House's Freedom in the World reports, published annually since 1978 and available online since 2001. Freedom House focuses broadly on democratic rights. The annual volumes of Freedom in the World provide essays assessing the state of democratic rights in all the nations of the world, and their coverage is very comprehensive. In addition, Freedom House has provided since 1973 an annual ordinal rating on a 1 ("least free") to 7 ("most free") scale of the state of freedom for each country for its political rights and civil liberties, and, from a combination of these two ratings, a classification of each country as "free," "partly free," or "not free." These useful ratings make it possible to compare the state of citizen political rights and civil liberties for individual countries at any point in time since 1973 or to examine how the state of citizen rights has changed within a country over time.

The Freedom House ratings, especially the political rights scale, have frequently been used as measures of the level of democracy present in the countries Freedom House rates. Although this is a very appropriate use of the Freedom House data, the political rights scale is not the only widely used measure of democracy. Also very widely used are the "polity " indexes and their supporting data initially created by the political scientist Ted Robert Gurr and annually updated and maintained as of this writing by Monte Marshall and Keith Jaggers in the Polity IV Project. Like the Freedom House scales, the Polity IV Project data provide ordinal ratings, in this case for the world's 161 largest countries. Unlike the Freedom House scales, the Polity IV indexes are not published in print format.

fast facts

Freedom House was founded in 1943 by a group of Americans, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie.

The Polity IV indexes rate countries from zero to ten on two related but not simply inverse measures: levels of democracy and of authoritarianism . The Polity IV indexes are, in turn, the sum of a country's scores on several partial assessments of the nature of its government and politics. These assessments can themselves also be used to compare countries. Finally, for the 161 nations it assesses, the Polity IV data are very long term: They cover the period from 1800 through the latest possible year (2003 as of this writing). Although they are very useful measures of democracy and authoritarianism, the Polity IV data's are archived and presented in a format that is intended mostly for use by those with some professional training in the social sciences or related disciplines and who understand statistical analysis.

A different approach to rating the world's nations on the freedoms they extend to their citizens focuses on the extent to which they regulate or interfere in their economies. The Index of Economic Freedom has been generated and distributed in various print and electronic formats by the conservative Heritage Foundation each year since 1995. The 2005 version of the index covers 161 countries. The index itself is the average of a series of freedom ratings from 1 ("most free") to 5 ("least free") given each country on ten aspects of its economy (trade, fiscal burden, government intervention, monetary policy, foreign investment, banking, wages and prices, property rights, regulation, and informal market). An electronic version of the 2005 Index of Economic Freedom—the book commenting on issues of economic freedom, documenting the 2005 index and summarizing the performance of each country—and a spreadsheet containing all the economic freedom index scores from 1995 to date were available for download from the Heritage Foundation.

economic and social data

More purely economic data and much social and demographic data can be secured from many sources. Two of the most useful are the Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank's World Development Report. Both are published annually in print and electronic formats. The Human Development Report was created to provide a richer, more flexible, and more accurate assessment of the actual quality of life for the citizens of the world's nations than could be achieved by looking only at traditional economic data such as gross national product per capita . The human development index rates national quality of life by combining measures of raw wealth economic with other factors relevant to a good quality of life. The World Development Report concentrates on more traditional indicators of wealth and economic activity, although it, too, has become more creative in its approach to measuring world development.

Those who do not wish to purchase the printed Human Development Report can freely download the full text of the report for recent years, including its extremely valuable data tables. Selected data from the World Development Report can be accessed and downloaded online for no charge, but the World Bank sells the full database in various formats.

See also: Amnesty International.

bibliography

Amnesty International. Amnesty International Report 2004. London: Amnesty International, 2005. <http://web.amnesty.org/report2004/index-eng>.

Derksen, Wilfried. Elections Around the World, 2005. <http://www.electionworld.org>.

Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. Country Studies, 1986–1998. <http://www.countrystudies.us/>.

Freedom House. Freedom in the World 2004. New York: Freedom House, 2005. <http://www.freedomhouse.org/research>.

Heritage Foundation. Index of Economic Freedom. Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, 2005. <http://www.heritage.org/research/features/index/index.cfm>.

Heston, Alan, Robert Summers, and Bettina Aten. Penn World Table Version 6.1 Philadelphia: Center for International Comparisons at the University of Pennsylvania, 2002. <http://pwt.econ.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt_index.php>.

Human Rights Watch. Documents by Country. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005. <http://www.hrw.org/countries.html>.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. Your Site on Parliamentary Democracy. Geneva, Switzerland: Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2005. <http://www.ipu.org/english/home.htm>.

Marshall, Monty G., and Keith Jaggers, principal investigators. Polity IV Project. College Park: Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland, 2005. <http://www.cidcm.umd.edu/inscr/polity/>.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. <http://www.oecd.org>.

Schemmel, B. Rulers. <http://www.rulers.org>.

Transparency International. Corruption Perceptions Index 2004. New York: Transparency International, 2005. <http://www.transparency.org/cpi/2004/cpi2004.en.html#cpi2004>.

United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. <http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004>.

United Nations Statistics Division, 2005. <http://unstats.un.org/unsd/default.htm>.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. 2005 World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2005. <http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook>.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Chiefs of State and Cabinet Members of Foreign Governments. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2005. <http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/chiefs/index.html>.

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Country Reports on Human Rights. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2005. <http://www.state.gov/g/drl/hr/c1470.htm>.

World Bank. World Development Report 2004: Making Services Work for Poor People. Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2003. <http://econ.worldbank.org/wdr/wdr2004/text-30023>.

World Bank. World Development Indicators 2004 CD-ROM. Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2004.

World Bank. World Development Report 1978–2004 with Selected World Development Indicators 2003: Indexed Omnibus CD-ROM Edition. Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2004.

Zárate, Roberto Ortiz de. Zárate's Political Collections: Dates and Figures of the Worldwide Leadership Since 1945.<http://www.terra.es/personal2/monolith/home.htm>.

C. Neal Tate

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