Things in the good old days were simpler—there were just lies, damned lies and statistics. Today we also have an ever-growing range of indexes comparing countries on diverse dimensions, ranging from governance to economic competitiveness. Pakistan unfortunately lags behind on most such indexes. However, the two that have rankled Pakistani (supersensitive) national honor the most are the Transparency Corruption and the Failed State Indexes. Many offended Pakistanis may not comprehend their purpose and methodology fully. So, it is helpful to analyze these indexes thoroughly.
The Corruption Index started in 1995, when Pakistan was ranked as the third most corrupt country. In 1996 it slipped to second place, behind close friend Nigeria. In 2010, Pakistan ranked 36th. Has national morality really improved so much? Actually, national rank is a comparative concept. Even if corruption in Pakistan stays unchanged, its rank can change if other countries score differently or if new countries are added to the index. Pakistan has improved ranks mainly because the index initially ranked 40+ countries but today covers 175+ countries, with many new countries scoring worse than Pakistan. Similarly, the inference about sky-rocketing corruption that certain media outlets had drawn from Pakistan’s deterioration from rank 42 in 2009 to rank 36 in 2010 was inaccurate. Pakistan’s deterioration must be gauged by its absolute scores and not rank over the years. The index scores range from 10 (least corrupt) to 1. Pakistan’s score has fluctuated monotonously between the narrow range of 2.1 and 2.6 since 1995, except in 1996 when it dropped to 1. The worst scores since 1996 were in 2005 and 2006 (2.1).
Moreover, this index does not measure actual corruption incidence but people’s perceptions about it, based on different surveys with diverse methodologies. Hence, the index does not claim high accuracy and the small variations in Pakistan’s scores over most years, across different civilian and military governments, are statistically not significant. The results of this index over the years at least do not strongly support the common belief that corruption sky-rockets under politicians. There may or may not be some truth in this belief even if we defined corruption narrowly as bribery and nepotism. However, Transparency defines corruption more broadly as “the misuse of public office for personal gains”. So, corruption also includes dismissing judges and muzzling the media to prolong one’s dictatorship. Viewed so, it becomes even more difficult to rank politicians as worse than generals on corruption.
Moving on to the Failed States Index, its website reveals that Pakistan, which ranks around ten from the bottom since 2006, wrote a protest letter to the index-producers arguing that it is not a failed state since it possesses a large army and nuclear bombs! The cheeky-minded may retort that these are the very reasons for Pakistan’s many failures today. The index-producers responded more soberly that a low rank on their index does not mean that a state is a failed one but only that it faces more stresses than higher-ranking countries. Why then call it the humiliating-sounding Failed States Index inaccurately rather than the State Stress Index? I did not receive a satisfactory answer to this question in writing to the index-producers. Perhaps it has to do with marketing considerations since the catchy current title may attract more attention than a stodgy one.
More fundamentally, the index is not based on an analytical framework that identifies the various dimensions of a state on which it can fail. Thus, there is no clear basis for deciding whether the index’s 12 sub-dimensions, e.g., human flight and uneven development, are all valid and jointly exhaustive sub-dimensions of state failure. Unsurprisingly, one finds peaceful but economically-stressed Zimbabwe bracketed with war-ravaged Somalia. Moreover, like the corruption index, it is also based largely on subjective assessments given the complexity of these subjects.
Nevertheless, despite their weaknesses, these indexes highlight critical governance challenges and constitute a timely wake-up call for the napping government. However, one must understand their purpose and limitations clearly to avoid misinterpreting their message.
The writer is a Research Associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley. This article recently appeared in the Express Tribune.