Data Does Make a Difference

Lord McConnell
October 15, 2013

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.


Originally published on Lords of the Blog - Life and Work in the House of Lords.

Photo by Mo Ibrahim Foundation.


PN Member Lord McConnell, former First Minister of Scotland, is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region of Africa in the UK Parliament. He was Member of the Scottish Parliament for Motherwell and Wishaw from 1999 to 2011 and served as the Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Special Representative for Peacebuilding from 2008 to 2010.