Data does make a difference

Lord McConnell

As a Mathematician with a lifelong passion for numbers I have always liked statistics.

I am wary of them, of course. ‘There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” may be an overused quotation, but it does contain a grain of truth. In the wrong hands, ‘facts’ are not always what they seem.

However, data does make a difference. It helps us assess progress, or the lack of it. It can measure performance objectively. And it allows individuals anywhere to ask the right questions of those in power.

This morning over breakfast I enjoyed listening to Dr Mo Ibrahim, on the day after he launched his latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG). The index has become one of the most respected and well-used databases around. This is because his team have been consistent since 2000, understanding that one-off data sets have almost no impact, but a long-term year on year objective comparison becomes a weapon of strength in the battle for progress. They also apply rigour to their data collection and insist on the best.

The 2013 Index, based on data that is by its nature a year or so old, throws up many trends. In the four pillars of effective governance they measure, human development – education, health, etc. – has improved most since 2000. Sustainable economic growth and human rights/participation have also seen some considerable improvement. But in the fourth pillar, security and the rule of law, there has been a decline. Sadly, for many fear and chaos are a daily reality, and they affect everything else.

The good news is that in just over a decade some countries have seen dramatic improvement. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda and Angola stand out, and of course they are all post-conflict countries where peace and better governance have reaped rewards.

8 of the top ten have been there since the start, proving that good governance leads to even better outcomes. But, countries experiencing conflict and violence drop down the index and it is sad to see Egypt, Mali and others go down instead of up.

Overall, though, Dr Ibrahim has a message of hope – most of the countries of this diverse and regularly troubled continent are improving their governance and their outcomes, and have done so consistently since 2000.

Mo Ibrahim rightly sees this Index as a tool for change, not just an academic exercise. Across Africa, there are politicians, business leaders, and civic activists quoting this data and asking ‘why can’t we do better here’. Information is a weapon and when used effectively it can help those who want to change, and force those who don’t to answer for their complacency. But for me, the Index raised important issues outside Africa too.

It reinforces my determination to continue campaigning to make conflict, security, safety and the rule of law central to the post-2015 global development framework. And, it provides ammunition, real examples, to prove that there is progress, that ‘Africa’ is not ‘hopeless’ and to show those developed governments currently cutting aid that they are choosing the wrong moment in history to pull back.

Walking back to my office after such a thought-provoking start to the day two other things also struck me.

First, there are still gaps in the statistics that the Ibrahim Foundation want to use and most African countries have underdeveloped national statistics capacity. So, why are the developed world and the international institutions not insisting that a percentage of all ‘aid’ is spent on building the capacity of individual countries’ data collection, to measure the scale of the challenge and the impact of change?

And, recent controversies in Hungary and Italy and elsewhere remind us that bad practice in government is not solely confined to the developing world. Who will come forward in these times to set up a comprehensive and objective governance index for Europe? We would benefit from looking at ourselves too.

6 comments for “Data does make a difference

  1. ladytizzy
    15/10/2013 at 6:02 pm

    It’s a pity that the ‘savings’ bit of ‘aid and savings’ has been largely airbrushed out, leaving aid to mean something less nobler now, at least in the UK. However, your suggestion that we insist on a proportion of aid to be spent on data collections raises two immediate questions: when does ‘our’ money become theirs, and what level of trust should one have in a foreign government’s figures?

    I am a fan of raw data but there’s precious little available within my own postcode. Data is regularly abused and misused by parliamentarians, public sector managers, the military, media types, trade unionists, charities, and…OK, everybody who increasingly impinge upon my directly correlated increasing hermitic life.

    Give the UK Statistics Authority a blank-ish cheque, and sort it out in the UK first.

  2. Gareth Howell
    17/10/2013 at 9:13 am

    provides a statistical measure of governance performance in African countries.

    Governance is defined by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation as the provision of the political, social and economic public goods and services that a citizen has the right to expect from his or her state, and that a state has the responsibility to deliver to its citizens. This definition is focused on outputs and outcomes of policy.

    But they are not economic indicators pure and simple. What is a statistically defined political indicator? Comparing Malawi with Egypt makes a nonsense of it all. Malawi may still be a barter economy.

    As I understand it,there are sets of mathematical models/formulae which are used in all the developed economies, like Argentina, South Africa, Poland, diverse countries, which make the results acceptable to bankers and financiers, dealing with international transactions, but to do that with Africa would be next to impossible….. As long as everybody is agreed what the models are.

  3. Gareth Howell
    17/10/2013 at 9:28 am

    developed world and the international institutions not insisting that a percentage of all ‘aid’ is spent on building the capacity of individual countries’ data collection, to measure the scale of the challenge and the impact of change?

    They would be measures of monetary data collection. How would you measure such things in an economy which does plenty by barter?
    Aid is often based on compassion not on economics, although our ID department of state will be informed.

    The reason ID was split up from FO more than 30 years ago now, was that the FO was seen as a preliminary department of war, whereas ID was seen as precisely what you are asking now, although probably not as advanced a question as ‘building data collection capacities.’

    I should think that UK ID has quite a few statistical measures to decide which countries to assist and which not to, but it is also likely that they do not share it with other Development savvy nation states, such as France or

    It would certainly be a subject of enquiry for the parliamentary ID committee, which Mo Ibrahim may already have given evidence to many times.

    If he hasn’t and the noble lord and Mo Ibrahim and i get together and present some evidence then i shall certainly do some research on the subject. It would have to be closely argued, and L. McConnell would be well equipped to pass judgement on those countries which he has made detailed studies of.

    I am sure that Africa is the Continent of the 21stC but events in Kenya and other parts of the contested Christian/Arabic Islam world in East Africa, make me wonder about how people are going about it; extensive land grabbing using hard power and religion, (by warlords), as their tools.

    Perhaps they won’t want to get involved ,yet, in the sophisticated money capital grabbing, by modern robber barons, of the stock and share markets of the first world, just yet, all justified by the methods that
    L. Mc Connell says should start to be employed in Africa……..!!!

    South Africa is way up to it.

  4. Honoris causa
    17/10/2013 at 4:23 pm

    In the four pillars of effective governance they measure, human development – education, health, etc. – has improved most since 2000. Sustainable economic growth and human rights/participation have also seen some considerable improvement. But in the fourth pillar, security and the rule of law, there has been a decline. Sadly, for many fear and chaos are a daily reality, and they affect everything else

    I fear that these definitions vary from one point of view to another. In the sense that socialism is a backward movement to primitivist anarchism (chaos),
    ie to a pre capitalist society where nearly everything was done by barter , you would find it impossible to decide what the measure is, without being subjective about it.

    That is not to say that co-operatives do not work perfectly well within a capitalist society; they do, even if the IAAC has wished to impose non-co-operative restrictions on a burgeoning co-operative bank, in the UK.

    Furthermore the move to the capital(-ist) cities which is the most constant feature of the developing cpountries, is the one thing that promotes capitalist use of money in ALL aspects of daily life for most people.

    I suggested yesterday that Africa was the continent of the 21stC and an Asian woman queried “Not Asia?”. and of course the Asian economies have been the ‘success’ stories of the late 20thC and not forgetting that the SPANISH economy was still done quite a bit on barter in the early 1950s, and the flight to the cities in that country only really got under way in earnest in the late 1960s.

    The role model for collection of statistical data in such developmental circumstances may well be those Asian ones of the last 40 years or so, but the character of the African agriculturally based ‘economies’ may be very different from those of Asia. I understand that Uganda is 80% small holding based, and a good many other countries may be the same;
    you would not extract many of those statistics he purveys from such communities.

    How much are ten fruit trees worth in terms of money capital, each year?
    A tax inspector civil servant in the UK might be able to work it out, if he spent as many hours calculating and doing time motion studies on his victim’s labours. Repeated several million times it would be an impossible task.

    The same with education and health. Child mortality is the one sacred statistic of improved health since that also defines female mortality rate in general, but there are so many ill defined objectives in a statistical count
    that it would be a fruit-less task! Somebody concerned with such accumulation of data may be considered of necessity to have capitalist principles at odds with the primitivist philosophy of any given nation state.

    If you are looking for cultural homogeneity, or even homoscedasticity, you would certainly find it by inflicting statistical norms on populations which are not actually there at all.

  5. maude elwes
    19/10/2013 at 7:15 am

    Africa is a bottomless pit. And will go on being that way if white men in the West keep seeing it as a country of dithering infants who cannot work for themselves toward the cudgel of maturity. You repeatedly reduce the African people to the position of the uninformed when you feel you can simply charge in there with what used to be a bible in one hand a gun in the other. Now, it’s all done with mirrors referred to as figures and data as a euphemism, snapped together in order to create vagueness and pretense at overwhelming knowledge. Allow Africa time to exploit is own vast resources as an adult nation should. This constant harping about how you will do whatever to make Africa sing is a tired old lyric and it needs to join the rest of the old hats in the bin. Let go of Baroness Blixen’s line, ‘I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills, and because of it, you simply must, save my Kikuyu.’ It’s finally time to give those ‘African’ people a chance to save themselves.

    Then, perhaps, you may have time to get around to saving us right here in the UK. But, no, I suppose there would be no further need for your figures and you’d be shoved out the door without time to glance over a shoulder.

  6. MilesJSD
    23/10/2013 at 8:58 pm

    The principal
    (and principled)
    duo I turn to,
    to keep me wholisticly-balanced
    in the evil-financially-domineered
    “Economic”-Fools’-Paradise of Imbalanced-&-Imbalancing
    “Wreckonomic” Equationing,

    is the RT 24/7 News’s
    Stacy Herbert & Max Keiser.
    I’ve tried to remind readers of Lords of the Blog, since summer 2010, that back in the 199Ts, both British PhD Ann Hamlyn and Australian Professor David Smith in Australian Environmental Studies called our attention to respectively the almost blindly ‘myopic’ foresight of our politico-economic Planners vis a vis Longest-Term-Timeframing, and
    Now that we can see and start estimating and ‘guesstimating’ if not accurately-measuring the evidently increasing Shortfall between our Civilisation’s longest-term Needs
    and this Earth’s stock and resources “ability” to meet these Needs

    (“) Someone has got to get it through to the Economists that they have a fundamental flaw in there equationing somewhere(“).
    The other “Index” that baffles me
    especially in the absence of any generic & sustainworthy Individual Human Development Curriculum and Index
    is the UN UNDP Human-Development Index
    whereby you have to be Longevitous, then Highly Academicly Skilled and Workplace & Lifeplace Experienced and Exemplary, and lastly Filthy-Rich or “Wealthy”
    to start “scoring” on the UN’s aggregate-ladder.

    It is economic-social-mobilitously-ever-upwards to the 100% or Top Humanly-Developed Numbers, that bunches and whole-national-populations of originally ‘ordinary’ and natural must battle.

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