Countries Are Ranked On Everything From Health To Happiness. What's The Point?

5 hours ago

It's a brand new ranking.

Called the Sustainable Development Goals Gender Index, it gives 129 countries a score for progress on achieving gender equality by 2030.

Here's the quick summary: Things are "good" in much of Europe and North America.

And "very poor" in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

In fact, that's the way it looks in many international rankings, which tackle everything from the worst places to be a child to the most corrupt countries to world happiness.

And there are a lot of rankings. Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at Barnard College and the author of Ranking the World: Grading States as a Tool of Global Governance, used to keep track but stopped counting.

"It's so hard to keep up. I've just sort of given up," he says. In 2015, he counted 95 different indexes, with over two-thirds launched after 2001.

"Countries can get index fatigue, not know where to prioritize, become complacent and refuse to pay attention to them," notes Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa, an international lawyer based in East Africa.

And you do have to wonder: What's the value of creating so many indexes to measure human and economic development when they usually come to the same predictable conclusions?

Why we love to rank

It's easy to understand why groups like to rank. "Rankings appeal to our notion of who's on top, who's below. And they generate competition," says Cooley.

Even though the top and bottom countries are often markedly similar, international groups believe that there are benefits to the sorting and ordering.

For starters, a ranking can "name and shame" countries into trying to do better, says Cooley.

Consider the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index, which measures how easy it is for a company to set up shop in a given country. It looks at everything from construction permits to access to electricity. It's not a ranking that the general public has likely heard of. But it's a big deal in the world of economic development.

In fact, it's so influential that Vladimir Putin in 2012 vowed publicly to move Russia up from 120th place in the Doing Business index to 50th by 2015.

Russia did not quite succeed (it landed in 62nd place that year). But the index has spurred real-life policy change.

From June 2017 to May 2018, for example, the World Bank found that 128 governments "introduced a record 314 reforms" to benefit small- and medium- business entrepreneurs, enable job creation and spur private investment.

Another index that has moved countries to action is the African Development Bank's Africa Visa Openness Index. It shows which African countries are making improvements that support free movement of people across the continent.

"Since this index has been in place, several countries, including Ghana and Ethiopia, now allow Africans to get visas on arrival at a border post," says lawyer Musiitwa.

The researchers with Equal Measures 2030, the new gender index, hope their new index can also inspire change: positive steps for laws and policies that benefit girls and women.

Sarah Hendriks, director of gender equality at the Gates Foundation (a funder of this blog and NPR), worked on the index. She says the goal was to "put data in the hand of gender advocates" so they can inform their government ministers "where their country is doing well, where they are falling behind and how the country is performing in meeting [women's] needs."

To ensure that the index reflects the priorities of those advocates, the researchers teamed up with local organizations in countries like El Salvador, India, Indonesia and Tanzania, and drew from surveys from nearly 600 policymakers and gender advocates.

And that's the way things should go, says Dapo Oyewole, an Aspen New Voices fellow working within the Nigerian government. He says that rankings are only useful if there's local buy-in. "The rankings are only relevant if there's a local champion willing to drive the local changes — and an appetite from the government itself," says Oyewole.

The rankings game

Of course, there is a potential risk when countries try to move up. They can game the rankings.

Cooley cites an example in a 2015 piece for Foreign Affairs. In 2006, Georgia was in 112th place in the World Bank's Doing Business index. The country put together a working group to "rapidly pass laws and promulgate administrative rules" to shoot the country to 37th place in 2007.

"The evidence suggests that the change was more cosmetic than structural," Cooley wrote of Georgia's rise up the index. He found that the country's ranking had not improved on "comparable" indexes, nor did Georgia produce "a sustained increase in foreign investment."

In response to this criticism, World Bank spokesperson Chisako Fukuda told NPR: "To improve their scores, substantive legislative changes need to be made, which require a strong commitment by governments to improve their business environment."

Squishy data

Other rankings come in for criticism of another type: They're just kind of vague.

Consider Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, which attempts to rank the world's countries by how corrupt their public sectors are.

"A fuzzy concept like corruption isn't amenable to unpacking," says Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the author of Results Not Receipts: Counting The Right Things In Corruption.

A long-standing criticism from the international community is that the index relies on the perception of corruption to create its rankings.

The rankings are based on questionnaires with "experts and business leaders," according to the group. They're asked about a wide range of factors, from evidence of bribery to protections for whistleblowers.

That vagueness can make it difficult for local anti-corruption advocates and nonprofits to figure out what they need to do to fight the scourge in their countries: "Should I try to make the police less corrupt or should I join a government partnership to reduce corruption?" says Kenny.

When NPR asked Transparency International if it has seen any direct links to reform, spokesperson Ferenc Gaál responded: "It is difficult to draw clear causal links between the Index and concrete impact in the form of improvements of the corruption situation in any one country's public sector."

The group, however, has seen its index make an impression. Advocates against corruption in Nigeria, for example, have cited the country's poor ranking (144th place out of 180 in 2018) in op-eds calling for government reform.

Same old stories — but some surprises

As for the fact that many rankings look the same at the top and bottom, one reason has to do with money. Many indexes are correlated with GDP per capita, a measure of a country's prosperity, says Kenny. That includes the World Bank's Human Capital Index, which measures the economic productivity of a country's young people; and Freedom House's Freedom in the World index, which ranks the world by its level of democracy, including economic freedom.

And countries that have more money can spend more money on health, education and infrastructure.

Musiitwa says it "annoys" her when countries in Africa get poor ratings. It can have a negative effect on a country's financial opportunities, she says.

"I know that when investors are looking to do business in Africa, they look at indexes," she says, citing the Doing Business index and the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report. "The rankings provide some kind of guide to show that a country is well-placed to receive an investment, to figure out how stable the environment is."

But what is more frustrating, she says, is "when these countries and others that have been good performers slide back."

Perhaps the true value of the rankings, says Kenny, lies in the outliers: The surprising stories of countries that "demonstrate that there's space to do better."

Rwanda, for example, is often at the bottom of economic rankings. But in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report in 2018, which ranked countries by how equal its men and women are, the country was in the top 10.

Even for wealthy countries, there are lessons to be learned about what they need to address.

Consider the U.S. in Equal Measures 2030's new gender equality index.

Although the U.S. is one of the world's wealthiest nations, when it comes to creating fair policies for women and girls, the country is nowhere near the top. The U.S. comes in at 28th place, in between Bulgaria and Greece.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.