As the Mo Ibrahim Foundation prepares to publish the 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), practitioners in the development community will have a sense of anticipation over what the rankings and scores will look like. Political office holders also become interested depending on the performance of their respective countries. A good ranking often becomes a talking point for politicians while it is not uncommon for them to waive the implications of poor rankings. IIAG is particularly useful in Africa because, unlike similar indices, it is regionally specific hence lending it some ownership by Africans. Although it must be said that IIAG itself is a composite of indicators some of which aren’t necessarily exclusive to the continent.

However, as this year’s IIAG is published it is important to be strategic about how state and non-state actors in a country can take actionable steps to address identified shortcomings on governance, otherwise, the index will only serve a small community of development workers and technicians filling out charts on impact evaluation. This is important because while governance is intrinsically difficult to measure it is pivotal to the delivery of tangible public goods like roads and healthcare. Priority should therefore be given to the actions taken in the wake of the publication.

So, how can a measure of governance such as IIAG be translated into actions on governance?

To begin with, it would help to unpack the index. Governance can have different meanings to different people, so an index on governance can be variously interpreted. IIAG in particular is ambitious in including a variety of the areas that make up good governance — from rule of law to inclusivity to environmental sustainability. As idealistic as this is, it often loses the public in the web of misinterpretation. Like the parable of the blind men and an elephant, people conveniently interpret governance based on areas they are most familiar with. For instance, it is not uncommon to associate governance with political governancesuch that if a country performs well in the IIAG, it tacitly legitimizes its political climate when in fact it may have scored poorly on participation and human rights but compensated with high scores in other areas. While the IIAG report does well to disaggregate results into the respective components that make up overall governance, country ranking attracts the most attention and headlines. Therefore, unpacking the index into a number of more relatable indices such as economic governance, public sector governance etc will help focalize it for public scrutiny.

It is not clear how much consultation is made with governments during the preparation of the IIAG. The Foundation prides itself in complete independence which implies national governments have no say in what is published about their country. This approach may, however, not serve the broader interest of improving governance because it fosters a sense of animosity from government staff who are sometimes doing their best given the limited resources they have only to be rewarded by bad scores in an index. Furthermore, because the IIAG is a composite of primary data sources — many of which are sourced externally — it might not fully capture the context behind certain scores. For instance, an indicator such as Women’s Political Participation may take account of number of women in parliament or the presidential cabinet while ignoring the ‘quality’ of their positions, that is, whether women lead senate committees or hold crucial cabinet positions. Consultations help contextualize governance profiles but more importantly enables governments to be more obliged to accept the ratings and work towards improvement.

Finally, it would be useful to reward countries for improved performance relative to previous years. The Foundation confers an annual award known as the Ibrahim Prize for African Leadership to an ex-leader of an African country who must meet a number of leadership criteria while they were in office. This award is reportedly accompanied with $5 million consideration spread over 10 years followed by $200,000 a year for life. As noble as this award it, it is difficult to make the case that it spurs incumbent African leaders into becoming better at state governance. If the Foundation seeks to change the culture of African leadership or at least incentivize good leadership, it should financially reward countries which improve the most each year in the index scoring. That way, it stimulates competitive demand for good governance by citizens of the country. In fact, the money can be targeted to finance areas where the most action is needed by a country to improve its overall governance such as a capacity building program on macroeconomic forecasting, procurement of public management softwares etc. etc.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation does an incredibly important work publishing the IIAG annually but such great work only goes to waste if it doesn’t become a catalyst for governance reforms. Countries do not have a Ministry of Governance that can exclusively take onboard the implications of the report so there has to be deliberateness by all stakeholders in translating index to action.