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Assessing governance: No easy task

Written by Marta Foresti


The Ibrahim Index of African Governance is the latest addition to the flourishing field of governance assessment.  The World Governance Assessment (based at ODI), the Kaufman and Kraay indicators, and the Bertelsmann Transformation Index all seek to tell us about governance scores and progress in developing countries. So, what does the Ibrahim Index measure? Why is it distinctive? Is it offering something new? What are the most interesting features? How does it compare to other indices?

The MI Index measures governance based on 5 categories: Safety and Security; Rule of Law, Transparency and Corruption; Participation and Human Rights; Sustainable Economic Development; Human Development.

On balance this is a worthwhile exercise – it contributes to ensuring that governance is really high on the agenda for Africans themselves. Its most distinctive feature is that it focuses on Africa. This is important as it allows for more meaningful comparisons of like with like in countries in the same region, sharing similar histories and patterns of development. The growing number of global comparisons is starting to be considered less useful Also, the MI Index can be considered as more ‘home-grown’ than other assessments: African academics sit on the advisory board and the Foundation was set up by an African. However, the index is entirely developed in the US, by experts and students based at the Kennedy School of Governance at Harvard.

It is also distinctive for its integration of measures of development (interestingly divided between ‘economic’ and ‘human development’) with more traditional governance measures. In addition, ,it includes safety and security, a  dimension that has been undervalued in existing governance indices but which, for people in those countries where it is a problem, is likely to be a very important dimension of governance. It also aims to measure progress by scoring countries every year (this first index is based on data from 2005). Finally, it has a very high media profile and it has been supported by prominent figures such as Nelson Mandela. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation also sponsors the new Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The first award will be made 22 October to a former African executive Head of State or Government who has demonstrated excellence in African leadership.

However, methodologically, the Index is nothing new. It is yet another index based on a score system of already existing data  from a variety of secondary (and to some extent arbitrary) sources (e.g. existing data sets), aggregated to a selected number of indicators (again, quite arbitrarily) used to rank countries. The scores and resulting ranking are done by experts. 

The focus is on objectivity based on two pillars: the independent expert doing the scoring and the objective measures (e.g. data that objectively measures different aspects of governance, normally based on the rules being in place). Methodologically, the index appears similar to other well established governance assessments such as the World Bank Institute’s Kaufman and Kray indicators, although their categories are a bit different (voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law; control of corruption).

Finally, there could be significant constraints related to the statistical significance of these aggregated indicators, which often ‘hide’ the most significant measures of the underlying variable. We recently came across a database developed by the French Development Agency which avoids aggregating different variables and can reveal interesting findings on specific variables/dimension of governance (e.g. leadership capacity of elites etc).
Despite the African founder and advisers, the index is entirely developed in the US, by experts and students based at the Kennedy School of Governance at Harvard. It claims to be a powerful tool for Africans to hold their government to account, but it is largely based on information produced and measured by external actors.

Nevertheless, the Index has some interesting features and raises some interesting issues in relation to governance assessment:

- Its association of human rights with participation and not with rule of law. I’m not sure what to make of the indicators chosen to assess human rights. They seem arbitrarily picked to cover civil and political rights only, whereas on women’s rights the indicators are mostly on economic and social rights.

- The component on Rule of Law, Transparency and Corruption is very broad (usually this is dealt with in 2 separate components). This makes it difficult to ‘isolate’ the effects of corruption which in Africa are so relevant. The underlying measures of transparency (e.g. access to government documents, parliamentary voting records, draft budgets) are not very clear, so the inclusion of transparency seems incongruent with what is really being measured. Moreover, it isn’t clear how public sector corruption is measured. It is possible that it is being measured by falling back on some existing indices based on perceptions.

- The inclusion of hard indicators such as the road network and the other ‘arteries of commerce’ is useful.  These can be used to assess governance effectiveness, i.e. getting infrastructure in place is likely to be a good way to capture whether governments get things done. However, the category of governance effectiveness is not explicitly dealt with and the index does not appear to include measures on how things work which is odd since this is a key dimension of governance and often the area where different assessments can reveal interesting findings.

What are we to make of the scores and ratings? It is a bit strange that there are only two individual ratings below 20 – for Somalia. Nearly every country gets a rating above 30 for each category. It creates the impression that apart from maybe Somalia there are no basket cases. Ratings for Zimbabwe are also surprising – its rating for participation and human rights seemed relatively high. DRC is rated better on safety and security than South Africa. SA may deserve a relatively low rating given the prevalence of violent crime – but is DRC safer or does it simply have worse data collection/availability?

In sum, this index is yet another example of the expert based, objectively measured governance assessments: there are quite a few of those out there. What the MI Index does not do is measure/assess how governance works (i.e. not only whether formal rules are in place, but how they work, for whom etc).  There is still a gap in the governance assessment field on measuring how rules work and for whom they work.  This entails asking key informants in Africa what they think about governance in their own countries and ‘triangulating’ with the expert based assessment to get a better picture of what is going on in the country.  That is another story but one with the World Governance Assessment seeks to tell. 

Verena Fritz and Laura Jarque contributed to the co-writing of this post. 

The 2006/7 World Governance Assessment results will be available shortly here.

Marta Foresti has recently completed a project on citizens’ voice and accountability, including an evaluation framework, methodology and literature review.

Verena and Alina Rocha Menocal will launch ‘Developmental States in the New Millennium’, a theme edition of Development Policy Review on 4 October at ODI.