Mo Ibrahim’s index and the inexact science of assembling a garbage plate

Sunday October 23 2011

Reading the Daily Graphic in Accra last week, my attention was drawn to an article about the Ibrahim Index and whether its results genuinely reflected ground reality in Ghana. This encouraged me to interrogate the Index and how it is compiled.

My personal and professional interests are in accountability, so I decided to dive into this sub-section of the Index.

I note first the results for East Africa, defined here as the five current members of the EAC. Specifically on the accountability measure, the strongest performing country is… Rwanda.

With a ranking of 59 out of 100, Rwanda also takes the 9th position in Africa. The region’s second best performer is Uganda, at position 48. Third place goes to Tanzania (47), and scrappy Burundi (35) ekes out a victory over last-place Kenya (34).

Although I have respect for many of the Kagame regime’s accomplishments, as a committed democrat, I had some trouble wrapping my mind around the notion of Rwanda as the most accountable government in East Africa, so I decided to delve further into the data.

What does the Ibrahim Index mean by accountability and how is this reflected in the way it is measured


The Index could be referring to political accountability, meaning that voters can hold politicians accountable for their performance, usually through elections.

Alternatively, the focus might be on legal accountability: Whether politicians are held accountable for breaking the law.
Since accountability appears under the broader category “Safety and Rule of Law,” it is reasonable to assume that it is legal accountability that is being measured.

Political accountability

The fact that the top scorer in East Africa is not a democracy also suggests that the focus here is on legal, not political accountability, since political accountability tends to be higher in democracies.

So is the construction of the Ibrahim Index’s measure of accountability consistent with the concept of legal accountability?

The accountability measure is itself based on six sub-indicators, which are averaged together.

Many of the measures that comprise the accountability index are indeed measures of legal accountability. For example, there is a measure that asks specifically about the existence of legal penalties for officeholders who abuse their positions.

On the other hand, the index also seems to include measures that are less clearly related to legal accountability.

One, which allegedly measures accountability in rural areas, appears to also be a measure of effective decentralisation and participatory planning at local level.

These issues may have something to do with political accountability, but they have little relationship to legal accountability.
Likewise, a separate measure of “accountability in the public sector” includes a measure of civil society access to information on public affairs. Is this really a measure of legal accountability?
There is another problem with the indicators used: Many of them do not ask about accountability, but about corruption.

Is the prevalence of corruption a proxy for a lack of accountability?

It may be true that in countries with very high levels of legal accountability, there is low corruption, and that the reverse is also true. But the index is meant to measure accountability, not corruption.

In any given year, there might be an increase in corruption but also an increase in accountability (e.g., more people go to jail).

The Index might show this as a decrease in accountability if it relies heavily on corruption scores.

Furthermore, corruption indicators are based on perception: In a year when many corruption scandals are exposed, perceptions of corruption may increase. Does this really represent a decline in accountability?

Advocates of garbage-plate composite index measures such as those used in the Ibrahim Index argue that, since it is inherently difficult to measure things like “governance” and “accountability,” concepts we struggle even to define, we should defer to a kind of crowd-sourcing where we ask lots of experts the same types of questions, and then average out what they say.

This will, like a well-crafted survey, tend to eliminate wacky and random responses and get us close to what we are really interested in.

For this to be true, though, we must have faith that the indicators we are mashing together have something to do with each other and with the underlying concept (e.g. legal accountability) we are interested in.

If not, taking the average of a bunch of unrelated things does not give us a better estimate of what we care about, but rather, the average of a bunch of unrelated things.

The Ibrahim Index measure of accountability falls short in this respect.

While it contains useful information, it should be more carefully constructed to reflect a clear conception of legal accountability that can be meaningfully compared across countries.
If after that Rwanda still tops, then hats off to them.

Dr Jason Lakin is a programme officer and research fellow at the International Budget Partnership. [email protected]