Nation & World

Index offers abundance of data

5 min read

Political scientists compile facts that illuminate status, conditions in African continent

To employ an analogy: If Somalia were to take a math test, the chaotic nation in the Horn of Africa would score a dismal 18.9 out of 100.

On the other hand, Mauritius, a prosperous island nation off the east coast of Africa, would knock off a respectable 85.1.

Welcome to the Index of African Governance, a Harvard-generated measure of how well Africa’s 48 sub-Saharan countries are delivering essential services and “political goods,” like safety, health, and human rights.

Its creators are Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) political scientists Robert I. Rotberg and Rachel M. Gisselquist.

In January, the two scholars took their novel metric of government performance to Rwanda and Malawi, where they met with government officials.

The trip was the first of its kind, said Rotberg, and will inspire more visits to the continent, where other countries are already interested in using the index to diagnose systemic national problems. (He plans a March trip to Zambia and Namibia.)

Rotberg said the index (formerly called the Ibrahim Index) is the only such ranking system to use “outcomes and objective data [to] capture the delivery of service — and therefore performance.”

It will also be the first such measure to systematically gather data on an annual basis for a 10-year period — “a continuous feedback loop” that will strengthen African governance, help reduce poverty, and spur economic growth, he said, “though maybe not every economist would agree.”

In the 2008 index, published last fall, Somalia ranked at the bottom of Africa’s 48 nations, based on a score filtered through a complex grid of data. Mauritius ranked at the very top. (In the report, most data are from 2006 — the last year for which reliable data were available.)

The index, first published in 2007, uses five basic indices to measure governance: security, the rule of law, human rights, economic opportunity, and human development.

In turn, these categories are divided into 14 subcategories and 57 sub-subcategories of numerical data. Sustainable economic opportunity, for instance, is measured by indicators as grand as GDP per capita, or as gritty as miles of road, electricity capacity, and even Internet usage.

Officials in Rwanda made the invitation as soon as seeing the 2008 index, said Rotberg, who is director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at HKS.

“We want the index to be used diagnostically in every African country,” especially those scoring in the middle ranks, he said — places like Malawi (ranked 11), Kenya (17), Rwanda (18), and Zambia (21), where governments are intentionally trying to make life better for citizens.

The Rwanda meeting, in the capital city Kigali, lasted a whole day and drew 80 officials. Included were all the cabinet ministers, representatives of the president and prime minister, Rwandan national statisticians, international donors, and diplomats.

In Malawi, the meeting was less formal, but still useful, the HKS researchers said. It included the women’s parliamentary conference, U.S. Embassy representatives, and World Bank officials.

In both places “we got some push back,” said Rotberg. In Rwanda, officials disagreed with their low rank (39th) on press freedom. (First place in this category went to Benin, a presidential-parliamentary democracy in West Africa.)

The rankings were based on a report from the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders, indicating that Rwanda has “medium rather than high levels of press freedom,” said Rotberg. But Rwandan officials call the source biased. “We have to investigate that,” he said.

Some of the push back went the other way: Malawi felt its score for drinking water access was too high, for instance, as well as some education measures. “OK, we will investigate those numbers in future years,” said Rotberg. “They say [our statistics] can be improved.”

Improvements in data and methodology have already been made, he said — some variables were refined, others dropped, and maternal mortality statistics were improved.

There’s also more information from local sources. The index now has “local and indigenous researchers in 36 countries,” said Rotberg, drawn mostly from university statistics departments to make the index’s data more immediate and accurate.

“Reliable statistics are hard to achieve even in Boston,” said Rotberg. “And they’re much tougher to [get] in data-poor areas with nugatory statistical services, as in Africa.”

Without local eyes on the ground, the index depends on reports from international organizations like the World Bank or UNESCO — where data are “mediated through Rome and Paris before [being] massaged,” he said. “The premise here is we can’t rely entirely on international data gathering,” as good as it often is.

The index, a diagnostic tool, is all about the promise of better results, Rotberg added. “Attention to what the real numbers are will enable the better governments to make better policy.”

In September, when the next index appears, it will include another first: brief unfiltered essays from social critics, journalists, and other unofficial voices in each country — “a local, critical eye” that will put the index in context, he said.

“This is not an arid exercise,” said Rotberg, who started teaching at Harvard in 1961. “This is a true Kennedy School operation because it has enormous applied value — and the more we have, the better.”