Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Statistics are rank

File under obvious: The developing world loves reports. By that I mean not just the developing world of kind of rich nations, but also people who work in the field of development. (They happen to mostly work in the world of kind of rich nations.) In other words, give me an indictor to measure and I’ll show you two development consultants wrestling over the fine print.

The developing world (of quasi-state like nations of aid) throws these indicators at you. They’re always ranking something: richest, poorest, least likely to send kids to school, most likely to blow up a bus in central Dar es Salaam.

In a way, these rankings work. They make the abstract real. They force us to agree on a common language. They give us something to talk about. (Like the greatest 10 guitarists from Minneapolis or the ten best places to take a dump in Istanbul.)

The problem is, few people ever question the rankings. They may have issues about the statistics that feed those rankings. They may wonder about the assertions made. But count on this: once an order is assembled it may as well be written in stone.

Let’s take the Human Development Index from UNDP. HDI is the granddaddy of them all – think how many decisions get made, how much money gets thrown around, just on the basis of a country’s HDI rank. In fact, I heard that when Niger hit the bottom (number 177 out of 177), the country had the event enshrined on its official stationary: Government of Niger, officially the poorest country in the world.

I don’t know about you, but the folks I hang out with throw these rankings around like stones.

“Mexico: 53. That’s not as bad as I’d thought.”

“Really, aren’t there just a bunch of drug cartels running the country?”

“Slovakia, way up at 42”

“Aren’t they communist?”

Once you start thinking about the rankings, you can kind of see into the UNDP’s arbitrariness. For example, Burkina Faso may be more than 70 points behind the Palestinian Occupied Territories, but let’s talk about quality of life here. Haiti also kicks its butt (154 to 174), but what role does crime rate play? Military coups?

What about the festering war zones? Why are they always ranked higher? Some would say resources gave the country a higher development rating and a greater chance to endure conflict. (Sorry, Iraq isn’t represented on the list. But Congo is. (140). So is Sudan. (141). And Myanar. (130). The list goes on.

Anyway, the reason behind this rant is the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Report, which was released this week. On the top spot lies the U.S., which was only six last year. On the bottom we find Chad, which fell 10 points from last year.

Here is an overview of the report: “The rankings are calculated from both publicly available data and the Executive Opinion Survey, a comprehensive annual survey conducted by the World Economic Forum together with its network of Partner Institutes (leading research institutes and business organizations) in the countries covered by the Report. This year, over 11,000 business leaders were polled in a record 131 countries.”

Unlike the HDI, where I can dig into the statistics behind the ranking (Palestinian Occupied Territories literacy rate: 92.4 percent; Burkina Faso: 21.8 percent), the World Economic Forum doesn’t let me. I don't get to understand the network of Partner Institutes (Transparency International? The Multinational Monitor?) What exactly did you ask all these business "leaders"?

If I want to dig any deeper, I have to buy the report, which they make quite easy through a site at Amazon in Great Britain. The only sticking point is the asking price: about $134 bucks, but for that they’ll throw in the 12 pillars of competitiveness. (We admit we are powerless over government interference...)

Anyway, I'll have to pass. If I wanted to parse the authors’ fallacies, judgments and inductive arguments, I’ll wait until next year, when I can buy this year’s report: only $40.

For free, they will let you download the .pdf with the rankings. But like the guitarists of Minneapolis, you can only stare at the hard cold facts: USA is 1 and Chad is 131.

No comments: