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F&M Students, Professor Explore Power of Democratic Participation

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  • Katherine McKiernan '13 (l) and Argemira Florez '13 pore over a global map in Franklin & Marshall College's Joseph International Center. The two students helped Assistant Professor of Government Stephanie McNulty document the levels of democratic participation in 38 developing countries for a book McNulty is writing. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

By Bonnie Snyder

A new movement that empowers and encourages citizens to be active participants in their governments -- called participatory decentralization reform (PDR) -- is an emerging trend in the realm of global civics.

This academic year, two Franklin & Marshall College student researchers -- government majors Katie McKiernan '13 and Argemira Florez '13 -- helped Assistant Professor of Government Stephanie McNulty discover how dozens of developing countries fare in their efforts to put power in the hands of their people.

"We looked at a type of decentralized democratic reform that is focused on mandatory participation," McKiernan said. "We've been reviewing 38 developing countries, classifying their levels of democratic participation, and then examining the ones that are considered to be PDRs. Essentially, we're conducting case studies of different nations."

McKiernan and Florez examined how the reforms are being implemented and how effective they have been. McKiernan focused mainly on statistical analyses, comparing various measures of government effectiveness and reports of corruption. She used data from Freedom House, an independent organization dedicated to expanding freedom around the world, and World Bank indicators to review public freedoms, such as freedom of the press. She used the data to measure whether these freedoms improved over time.

"Professor McNulty is really passionate about this topic, so it's fun," McKiernan said. "I've been able to see the research through several steps. I've looked at Honduras, Colombia and the Philippines. I did a lot of close reading in English and in Spanish to extract the data we needed. It forced me to look at things with a very analytical eye."

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  • Assistant Professor of Government Stephanie McNulty

So far, her findings appear to indicate that the reforms proved most effective in the years immediately after they were enacted, and that improvements fade when a new regime comes into power, indicating a need for greater oversight of people's rights during leadership transitions.

Florez chose to focus more on the qualitative side of research. Her case study contributions included Nicaragua, Rwanda, Uganda and Mozambique. "I was studying the historical context and the legislation and reading their constitutions," she said. "I visited Rwanda and interviewed government officials involved in legislative work at different levels. I am still in contact with them."

McNulty, who is penning a book on the subject during a sabbatical, praised the research prowess of her mentees.

"Katie and Argemira provided very important assistance to this project. Katie went above and beyond the basic job that I had given her, seeking out new data sources to test this relationship in a variety of ways," she said. "Argemira was exceptional. She brought insight into the Rwanda case that would not have been possible without her data collection in the field."