Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

Recently the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which seeks to promote good governance by offering monetary incentives to African presidents who govern their nations properly, ranked the performance of 48 African governments.

The lowly populated countries of Mauritius (first), Seychelles (second), Botswana (third) and Cape Verde (fourth) were the four best-governed countries in Africa, while Sudan (45th), Chad (46th), Democratic Republic of Congo (47th) and Somalia (48th) were the least well-governed.

The foundation’s ranking bases its evaluation on the outcome of government action in the following five areas of governance: safety and security; rule of law, transparency, and corruption; participation and human rights; sustainable economic development; and human development.

The ranking, however, raises at least two key anxieties. The first is whether by offering a financial incentive to a head of state the foundation is not implying that governance in Africa depends on a personalised neo-patrimonial power, such that any inducement for good governance must target the head of the clique.

The second, with which I am more concerned here, is the extent to which the ranking criteria are acceptable as priorities to the majority of citizens. The foundation says: “The Ibrahim Index uniquely defines governance as the delivery of key political goods, capturing defined, measurable outcomes rather than subjective assessments.”

Some people might consider the following factors as the most crucial in ranking governance in Africa: the level of domination of the economy by former colonialists; the percentage of the nation’s natural resources and industries in the hands of the ordinary citizen; what percentage of profits from foreign investment is ploughed back into the country; and the level of industrial manufacturing. Other factors could be the price of food, rent and other services in relation to income (cost of living).

Governance ranking will always depend largely on the subjective background and interests of the assessors. For example, the World Bank used the following elements to assess governance: voice and accountability; political stability and absence of violence; government effectiveness; regulatory quality; rule of law; and control of corruption. Yet the professional, cultural, racial, political, commercial and foreign policy priorities of the bank’s dominant shareholders could be crucial factors.

Any overstretching of governance rankings, therefore, could obscure the truth about the conditions of life of the people and excuses, or even entrenches, bad governance.

There is, thus, a need to get behind the headings and the numbers and consider what exactly goes into them. One should know, for instance, what it means when the Mo Ibrahim ranking says that Gabon and Libya, whose presidents have been in power since 1967, have an overall score higher than those of Senegal, Ghana and Zambia.

Many people would argue that the levels of poverty in Gabon (and Botswana) are intolerable in view of their great wealth.

The criteria used in these governance rankings are selective. It is significant to note that components such as ideology, class, foreign policy leanings, the manner of organisation of the nation’s political parties and their financing and the country’s stand on privatisation, globalisation and economic independence may determine which words and phrases should be twinned.

For example, whether to say “human rights and security” rather than “human rights and safety”, or to choose to say “sustainable economic opportunity” instead of “sustainable economic development”, or to showcase “economic growth” rather than emphasise “economic development”. These are not just disinterested vocabulary choices — they are loaded with what the assessor wants to prioritise.

Another serious problem with these evaluations is the practice of weighting all factors equally. It could be argued that because different countries are at different stages of political, economic, social and racial development, their priorities in matters of governance and development are bound to vary in several ways.

There are, undoubtedly, complications associated with the performance of African governments being ranked by various international institutions, such as the World Bank, Transparency International and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Nonetheless, ranking is a laudable practice, which must be encouraged to stimulate debate and inform policy to advance Africa’s effort at continental good governance and to support the work of the African Peer Review Mechanism.