Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Africa: Does Index Predict or Produce Failed States?

J. Peter Pham, allAfrica.com - GUEST COLUMN -12 September 2008

The Failed States Index (FSI) for 2008 is out. The annual report by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace, now in its fourth year, uses twelve social, economic, and political indicators to rank the countries of the world for their state vulnerability or risk of violence; the higher the score, the greater the risks of being labeled a "failed state".

However, a closer examination of this year's results—and a review of those reported in previous years—raises the question of whether the index forecasts failure or, however unintentionally, precipitates it. This is particularly germane in the case of African countries working to generate jobs and much-needed income through trade and investment.

As a scholar of Africa, I was not in the least bit surprised that more than half of the twenty countries in the FSI's red "alert zone" were on the African continent. That Somalia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe should be ranked first, second, and third, respectively, in terms of danger of collapse is unremarkable. Somalia, for example, having had no effective government for about 17 years, has degenerated into a Hobbesian state of nature where life is indeed "poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

In contrast, some of the other index rankings are downright puzzling. Each year Israel has slid in the rankings and now appears among the 60 weakest states. Côte d'Ivoire's total score for "indicators of instability" has remained virtually unchanged despite a peace agreement and considerable progress toward national reconciliation the last two years. Ironically, Kenya, which was racked by violence following last December's presidential election which took some 1,500 lives and left at least a quarter of a million people homeless, was ranked 18 places higher than Côte d'Ivoire which has seen virtually no violence in 18 months.

Such disconnect indicates that the problem may not be with some countries so much as with the index itself. The authors of the annual assessment have fallen into that trap whereby political and other social scientists try to appear more "scientific" by aping their counterparts in the natural sciences. While everything in nature is quantifiable, human societies are more complex and do not as readily lend themselves to having numbers assigned.

But the designers of the Failed States Index nonetheless give it the old college try. What they basically do is run software that indexes and scans thousands of articles and other reports, usually in the last six months of the year before the index is published. The software scores these articles on twelve social, economic and political indicators. The ranking of the countries is based on a total combined score (this year, first-ranked Somalia scored 114.2, while 177th-ranked Norway scored 16.8).

While this method may be useful for taking a one-time "snapshot," its fatal flaw is its failure to account for the fact that the index itself can end up driving the reports on which its next edition draws, becoming, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Take the case of Uganda, which is now listed in the index as more unstable than in the past: it ranks 16th out of 177 countries in terms of indicators of instability in the current index, compared to 27th when the FSI was unveiled in 2005. That conclusion contradicts the reality of the East African country which, far from being a candidate for failure, has been one of the most successful cases of a state turning itself around in the world, not just Africa.

Since the late 1980s, Uganda has rebounded through a combination of determined political will and willingness to adapt. Economic reforms introduced under President Yoweri Museveni, including privatization of state enterprises, restructuring the financial sector, liberalization of the coffee industry and increased public investment in health and education, have more than tripled Uganda's GDP in real terms and encouraged private investment.

The improving economy has lifted the income of all Ugandans—the poverty rate has been slashed nearly in half even as the population has nearly doubled to 28 million—and the overall standard of living has improved considerably when one considers measures like infant mortality, access to clean water, adult literacy and school enrollment.

While there have been concerns about the government's handling of some of its political opponents, the reality is that Uganda is an island of freedom and stability when compared with larger neighbors like Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the security front, one of Africa's longest-running conflicts, the two-decade long rebellion in northern Uganda by the Lord's Resistance Army, is winding down. Uganda currently also contributes military personnel to six United Nations peacekeeping operations in addition to the 1,600 troops who currently make up two-thirds of the African Union mission to Somalia.

Not surprisingly, last year Uganda qualified for funding through the Millennium Challenge Account, the United States government program which provides assistance to countries on the basis of their commitment to policies that promote political and economic freedom, investments in education and health, control of corruption and respect for civil liberties and the rule of law.

Despite this abundant evidence of Uganda's significant qualitative progress in recent years, the FSI reports a steady quantitative decline since the index's inception: from a score of 91.7 in 2005 to 96.1 in 2008.

Moreover, since the publication of the current rankings, Uganda has been the subject of a number of negative press reports, many by media outlets which rarely cover Africa but which may have been influenced by the "potential failed state" tag to cast a look at the country in search of flaws allegedly indicative of its vulnerability to implosion. And because of the index's methodology, these multiplying reports will, in turn, further adversely impact the country's ranking in next year's index.

Unfortunately, the adage that bad news is better than no news may be true in Hollywood, but it certainly does not apply on the international stage. In transitioning societies, loose talk about state collapse being "just one disaster away" can heighten political tensions and scare away much-needed investment capital, bringing about the very failure that tools like the FSI are supposed to serve as timely alerts against. And for countries like Uganda, which has achieved considerable results despite the obstacles in its path, to be undercut like that would be doubly tragic.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies