Democracy in Crisis

When three faculty members from our Department came together to prepare a research grant on the crisis of democracy, they had no idea that 2016 would end with the US imposing sanctions on Putin’s Russia for interfering in the US election in favour of Donald Trump. While some less than fully democratic countries (often called hybrid regimes) had taken steps towards becoming less democratic, it was now clear that established democracies were also in trouble. Brexit, terrorist attacks in Europe, mass migration of refugees out of Syria, crisis in Turkey, and meltdown in Venezuela, all suggest that as 2016 came to an end, the ‘crisis of democracy’ was in fact the new normal.


Generous research support from UBC’s Office of the Vice President Research (VPR), under the UBC Strategic Excellence Fund, has enabled professors Max Cameron, Sheryl Lightfoot, and Lisa Sundstrom to launch the Research Excellence Cluster on Global Challenges to Democracy: Rights, Freedoms, and Human Development.

The Global Challenges to Democracy Cluster will develop a ‘cluster of expertise’ on democratization in Political Science – bringing together colleagues within the Department and researchers from other institutions – to confront the major challenges and problems facing democracies around the world.

The spread of democracy has been driven by a struggle for freedom and opportunities for human flourishing, and yet democratic institutions based on full and inclusive citizenship face a variety of global challenges. The Global Challenges to Democracy Cluster will organize collaborative, international and interdisciplinary workshops on:

  1. global rights and democracy;
  2. Indigenous rights and self-determination; and
  3. human development and the quality of democracy.

The generous seed funds from the VPR is kick-starting the workshops and the creation of new grant proposals. UBC’s support for innovative research that includes a multiplicity of voices, at a time when basic assumptions about liberal democracies are being shattered, is critical to expanding existing research programs and connecting a diverse group of international and interdisciplinary academic researchers and reporters.

The UBC Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI) is currently at the forefront of research on the challenges to and innovations in democratic governance around the world, examining the hurdles and opportunities that leaders face as they attempt to overcome social division, manage long-term social problems, and generate public engagement. With UBC awarding a Research Excellence Cluster on the Global Challenges to Democracy to Cameron (Director of CSDI), Lightfoot, and Sundstrom, efforts are now underway to expand the work of CSDI, and build an even broader base of significant and timely research on the Global Challenges to Democracy.

This support from UBC comes at a critical historical moment. The benefits of democracy and good governance are increasingly at risk, as once-exemplary democracies lose their attractiveness, and vulnerable democracies are drifting into the gray zone between electoral democracy and authoritarianism. Perhaps even more troubling is the array of global challenges democracies now face, including threats to financial stability, energy supply, public health, and the global climate. Effective solutions require coordinated action and sharing of best practices at regional and global levels – often far removed from citizens and representative institutions.

As the Research Excellence Cluster on the Global Challenges to Democracy embarks on the creation interdisciplinary workshops, members are also working towards an application for a wider SSHRC Partnership Grant on “Global Challenges to Democracy”. Stay tuned for more information, and on behalf of the Department of Political Science congratulations to Drs. Cameron, Lightfoot, and Sundstrom for being awarded a prestigious VPR Research Excellence Cluster to continue their ground-breaking research on the Global Challenges to Democracy.


max cameron

Professor Maxwell A. Cameron (Ph.D., California, Berkeley, 1989) is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), and he specializes in comparative politics (Latin America), constitutionalism, democracy, and political economy. Cameron has held visiting positions in the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at Notre Dame University (1996) and at Yale University, where he was the Canadian Bicentennial Professor in 2005. In 2006 he served as political advisor to the OAS Electoral Observation Mission in Peru. He founded the “Andean Democracy Research Network” to monitor and report on the state of democracy in the Andean region which received funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Martha Piper Fund, SSHRC, IDRC and the Ford Foundation. Since 2011 he has served as the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions

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Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom (PhD, Stanford University) joined the department in 2002 and teaches courses in international relations and comparative politics. Her regional area of expertise is Russia and the former Soviet Union, and her major research interests include democratization, human rights, the politics of international democracy assistance, and NGO activism in both domestic and transnational politics. She also maintains a research interest in comparative climate policy. Her 2006 book from Stanford University Press is based on extensive interview research, concerning the influence of foreign assistance programs on the development of women’s and human rights NGOs in Russia. Ongoing research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, examines Russian human rights NGOs’ interactions with the Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights, and the impact of those interactions on NGOs themselves and human rights practices in Russia.

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Sheryl Lightfoot (PhD Minnesota) is Canada Research Chair of Global Indigenous Rights and Politics, and Associate Professor in both First Nations and Indigenous Studies and Political Science at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include global Indigenous peoples’ rights and politics, Indigenous diplomacy, social movements, and critical international relations. She publishes articles in both Indigenous studies and international relations venues. Her book, “Indigenous Global Politics” was published in 2016, and is an extension of her PhD dissertation which won the 2010 Best Dissertation Award in Race and Ethnic Politics from the American Political Science Association. She is Anishinaabe from the Lake Superior Band of Ojibwe.

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