The Tyranny of Indexes

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

I previously mentioned two indexes, the Department for International Development’s  (DFID) needs-effectiveness index and the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index. There are many other examples though and in recent years it has seemed to be a growth industry with everyone and anyone wanting to have a piece of the action. As the recent errors at the Department of Transport have shown though economic modelling is at times a deeply flawed component of modern day domestic, as well as international, policymaking.

To focus on DFID’s needs-effectiveness index, it is the basis by which DFID provides a clear rationale for which countries it works in and which it does not (in effect it provides a priority list of countries from the highest at number 1 to the lowest at 106). At number 1 is India (fact check from my previous post: India is not counted as a fragile and conflict-affected country by DFID).

The House of Commons International Development Select Committee has described the methodology used to construct the index as biased because it uses the total population living under $2 a day – the international definition of moderate poverty – rather than the proportion of population living under $1.25 a day – the definition for extreme poverty. This means that the results of the index are purposefully shaped so that large populous countries are at the top creating an index that may well neglect those countries that have the most acute and deepest poverty.

A case in point being Burundi, which in 2010 had the lowest gross national income (GNI) per capita in the world (at number 215) and is in the bottom three of the 2011 United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. India by contrast has a GNI per capita ranking of 164 and does not figure in the low human development group. It is strange therefore that Burundi lost all funding after the needs-effectiveness index’s results were compiled in the Bilateral Aid Review whilst India’s continued.

In part, this is undoubtedly a question of how to measure poverty, which has important ramifications for where the poorest in the world live as this Economist article explains. Nevertheless, indexes in general are exceptionally poor policymaking tools because they involve a process of severe agglomeration of diverse criteria across a wide range of states. The eventual result is only a snapshot of the situation through the necessarily blinkered perspective of the index, which gives no indication of whether a country is progressing or declining or why it is doing so.

In DFID’s case it thus fails to acknowledge that poverty is a relative and dynamic concept not static and absolute. This is of particular concern when considering that such a snapshot is being used to project forward UK spending. In essence, indexes, economic modelling, and statistical information have a part to play in informing policy but they are no substitute for analysis and understanding of uniquely poor, marginalised, unequal and war-torn societies from the ground.

7 comments for “The Tyranny of Indexes

  1. MilesJSD
    22/10/2012 at 5:39 pm

    Index “Tyranny” prevails elsewhere in the human-needs & hows Arena
    under the administration of no lesser prestigious Body than the United Nations itself,
    whose HDI (Human Development Index) is several times flawed because:
    1) It has no IndividuaL Human Development Model and Index to support it;
    2) It aggregates Nation-States competitively against each other, not even Nation-versus-Nation;
    3) Its formula reads like a vertically-towering Ladder –
    HDI of 100% or 1.0000000 = Longevity x Knowledge x Wealth ;

    Thus unless you are an old-person, have a string of academic letters after your name, and are at least a millionaire,
    you won’t have even one foot on the bottommost rung of the United Peoples’ (qua UN) Aggregate Human Development ladder.
    Within the same Reasoning faculty, what is the minimum individual-income necessary and sufficient for the recipient to maintain him/her-self
    And in any other way essentially “human-and-civilised” ?

  2. Gareth Howell
    22/10/2012 at 6:52 pm

    I am taking the liberty of placing the noble Baroness’ wiki profile, before I make any smart remarks about Uganda (about which I know a little).

    I heard a sound bytes clip of a 95 year old man who has spent his life as a “headmaster” in the Hindu Kush and the tribal territories, well….. at least since he was 75.
    I suspect he has spent his life well, at all times and would not be interested in DFID Indexes, merely at living frugally and rightly himself,and doing what he can for others!

    The value of meaning of “failed states” is only so if there are successful ones which wish to exploit them, possibly by pretending to be concerned with lessening their “failure”.

    A state which scarcely uses money at all, there are one or two in Africa,and resorts to barter for most things in life is a “failed state”.

    It may actually be very successful….. at barter.

    Success, according to the baroness, is N dollars a day.

    • MilesJSD
      23/10/2012 at 3:46 pm

      Bigger knottier Problems there,
      I think needing to be priority-wise progressed inwards towards the centre of the Table, Gareth:

      what is meant by
      (or what do you mean by)
      “successful nation-states”
      “unsuccessful states” ?

      An Instance of Doubt:
      That the USA has only 5% of the world’s population, yet corners and controls, consumes (and also largely wastes), more than 80% of the world’s non-renewable and renewable resources,

      yet along with a handful of other “free, democratic, and ‘human-developed’ states” is judged academically, economically, politically, geographically, human-developmentally, and governancially, to be a “successful” Nation (State);

      but how can Overconsuming
      (and Largely-Wasting)
      two(2) Earthsworth of Resources,
      and planning to increase that Overkill to three Earthsworth by 2050*,

      [ * see “How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth” (headed by Sir David Attenborough)]

      be judged “successful” ?
      (I sit down, awaiting further guidance).

  3. Gareth Howell
    23/10/2012 at 6:17 pm

    (and Largely-Wasting)
    two(2) Earthsworth of Resources,

    It may scarcely be said that MJSD does not have a ‘world view’. He has at least two, and at least two worlds as well.
    It is understood that the originator of this subject and other similar ones, has a world view,( only one I should think!) based on excellent and long service for the cause of the EU. MJSD raises a relevant point about US consumption.

  4. MilesJSD
    25/10/2012 at 9:12 am

    Not only is this key index “tyrranical”,
    and other key indices (such as the UN HDI) also are seriously flawed,

    but there is neither a sustainworthy-leader
    (in any of the ‘worlds’ such as GH apparently but indescriptively perceives)
    nor a model for a sustainworthy-human-lifestyle anywhere in any of the going or would-be ‘worlds’ or ‘world-views’,
    nor a model for a sustainworthy human civilisation.
    Worse, in this medium of democratic-governance (e-site, not only are key truths, values, needs & hows, and real-dangers being avoided and excluded
    both from the governing Governance tables and from the Public’s scrutiny, discussion, and participative-decision-making channels, places and media,
    but both deliberate and accidental Fallacies* are not only allowed to dominate even in original peer-posts, but are often ‘clique-like’ supported and encouraged (and thereby become doubly falsely founded and publicly wrongly-established).

    Did GH note that (for instance) the source-authorities for “Two Earthsworth of Resources”
    (which I gave a lead reference to, as being contained in Sir David Attenborough’s recent TV documentary “How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth ?”)
    themselves do not come forth to substantiate such factoramas ?

    Nor does any other such authority ever stand forth to continue being counted, or be further scrutinised ?
    Many peers, other politicians, civil-servants, education authorities, and media-editors, simply avoid answering such vital questions altogether.
    * (re unwanted Fallacies)
    That MJSD’s ‘world’, ‘two-worlds’, or ‘world-view’ is in any way key in the Matter at hand is a fallacy of irrelevance (and borders on looking like an abusive or circumstantial argumentum-ad-hominem, avoiding the issue and key-questions therein);
    And there are other fallacies on this e-site, similarly being propounded and allowed to slip through into unsuspecting minds as well as into ‘like-clique-interested’ hands.

  5. Dave H
    25/10/2012 at 12:51 pm

    There is no way India should be at the top of such a list. Any country that can afford a space programme should not be receiving aid from the UK.

  6. Gareth Howell
    27/10/2012 at 1:17 pm

    If we are all to live in high rise cities, then the possible total might be 18,000m
    or even 24,000m, but the warmongers amongst us will always propound,

    “too many people for earth’s resources”

    so that they can carry on
    their killing for pleasure and business.

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