Several weeks ago, I spent a day in the heart of London attending two index launch events. One concerned the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance 2012, the other the Global Hunger Index 2012 by IFPRI/Concern/German Agro-Action. Both taking place the same morning was coincidental and seemingly only connected by a few folks shuttling between both events. Yet, it clearly signalled the rise of the index as a measurement and advocacy tool in development.
Of course, indices have been around for some time, yet a clear trend has emerged over the last decade. In the early 1990s the Human Development Index was established to become a leading international reference point, with the UN Development Programme publishing annual human development reports.
Newer kids on the block include the Centre for Global Development's Commitment to Development Index (since 2003); the Gross National Happiness Index of Bhutan (2009); the Global Food Security Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit (2011); the Multidimensional Poverty Index (2010) Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative and UNDP; and the Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index of OPHI/USAID/IFPRI (2012), to name but a few. Here I should declare an interest: I have been working with colleagues to develop a Hunger ReductionCommitment Index ( - 2011), soon to be relaunched as Hunger And Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI).
So why are indices so rapidly proliferating? Here are some reasons, in no particular order:
They allow a quick fire comparison of countries, if done well. Although in-country policymakers overwhelmingly focus on domestic development, international comparisons can broaden their horizons without any fuzz.
People, organisations and governments are intrigued by league tables - they love them or love to hate them. A senior African UN administrator and member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's governing board noted that African political leaders proudly wave index findings when it portrays them as doing well, or don't use them at all.
Indices not just stir up debate but can also foster dialogue. Civil society groups are attracted to indices as it allows them to engage with governments using credible third party analysis, that often employ government published data.
The diagnostic strengths of indices can not only enable governments to assess their own performance on critical development indicators but also help them to join up dots that otherwise may remain unconnected.
Indices are possible. This is not just a statement of the obvious. Greater ease of access to data thanks to computerised databases has greatly enabled their construction, on a growing number of indicators. For instance, the Global Food Security Index looks at 25 indicators for 105 countries, and the Ibrahim Index of African Governance compares 53 African countries for 84 variables. This is not to say that sufficient data on the right indicators is always available - it often is not. Indices show what data is available, not what is lacking.