In the Douglas Adams comic novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a computer called Deep Thought is tasked with identifying “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything“. Frustratingly, the ultimate answer – 42 – is incomprehensible without knowing the ultimate question.
The importance of knowing what to ask sprang to mind after reading the newspapers a couple of weeks ago. “Tanzanians most secure people in EA” spluttered the East African headline. It went on:
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation released a study that showed that Tanzania scored highly in both national and citizen’s personal security, an indication that the state is committing enough resources towards the safety of its people
And they had the numbers to prove it:
On people’s safety, Tanzania ranked high, scoring a fairly average mark of 49 with Kenya coming last with 31; Uganda had 46, Rwanda 40 and Burundi, 34.
No 42s, but not far off. So where do the numbers come from? In this case, the scores for Personal Safety are a mash up of existing and specially commissioned data for five sub-indicators. The score for Domestic Poitical Persecution is drawn from two US based projects, the CIRI Human Rights Data Project and the Political Terror Scale. That for Human Trafficking comes from the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. Scores for Social Unrest, Safety of the Person and Violent Crime come from research commissioned by the Ibrahim Foundation from the Economist Intelligence Unit.
What could possibly go wrong? Three things, mostly. Categorisation, actionability and control.
Firstly, there’s a confusion of categories. Average people’s likelihood of being a victim of crime – a break in, a mugging, a snatch – is in quite a different category from the likelihood of being persecuted politically – disappeared, tortured or killed extra judicially by the state. Both are of great importance and both, in different ways, tell us much of people, states and power. They may even involve the same agencies; but they are very different things that must be addressed discretely in terms of legislation, administration, community involvement and oversight. They don’t belong together.
Secondly, the data is obscure and doesn’t help identify how you might improve things. If Tanzania is to shift from 49 to 55, what should it concentrate on? Illegal migration routes transiting Tanzania taken by Ethiopians and Somalis mostly; internal trafficking of house maids; or community policing? Would any of the data gathered help in making those choices? I doubt it. Categories are important.
Thirdly, not everything measured is amenable to a solution in Tanzania. An upsurge in illegal Ethiopian and Somali migrants may lower Tanzania’s score but not be in Tanzania’s control.
Jason Lakin of the International Budget Partnership makes similar criticisms of how the Ibrahim Index measures accountability, also in The East African. Indeed his analyis was what sprung to mind when belatedly coming across the East African’s reporting of Ibrahim’s public safety scores.
Expect more such posts. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2012 came out ten days ago (yes, that’s 2012) and there’s plenty to talk about there. Let’s hope they knew what the question was.