It is that time of year and we should expect several indices to be released by the UN, government agencies and renowned academic think tanks in Europe and the United States. These indices cover a whole range of issues such as corruption, human rights, religious freedom, economic freedom etc. etc. Countries will be ranked, with the top 10 making the news, as well as the bottom 10. The most recently released Index of Economic Freedom, an annual index and ranking to measure the degree of economic freedom in the world’s nations, is a creation of the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. Heritage Foundation says:
“…The Index covers 12 freedoms – from property rights to financial freedom – in 186 countries…Economic freedom is the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property. In an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please. In economically free societies, governments allow labor, capital, and goods to move freely, and refrain from coercion or constraint of liberty beyond the extent necessary to protect and maintain liberty itself…Economic freedom brings greater prosperity. The Index of Economic Freedom documents the positive relationship between economic freedom and a variety of positive social and economic goals. The ideals of economic freedom are strongly associated with healthier societies, cleaner environments, greater per capita wealth, human development, democracy, and poverty elimination…”
Sounds great, but what exactly is it measuring? Before I get into that, allow me to briefly visit another widely quoted and used index-the Freedom House index.
Washington releases several indices every year and the Foreign Service establishment relies on these indices to make its policy decisions. Like the IEF, the annual index produced by the NGO Freedom House, whose founders also established the United Nations, is often quoted and its scores used to rank countries. According to Freedom House, its survey:
“…attempts to judge all countries and territories by a single standard and that Freedom House does not maintain a culture-bound view of democracy…leading Democrats, Republicans, and independents; business and labor leaders; former senior government officials; scholars; writers; and journalists all are united in the view that American leadership in international affairs is essential to the cause of human rights and freedom…”
So in 1993, at a time when Eritreans having voted for a referendum conducted in Eritrea and in cities and towns across the United State and Europe, as well as in Ethiopia, in their ratings, Freedom House rated Eritrea “Not Free”. Ever since then, this author has taken with a grain of salt what the various indices said about Eritrea as their measurements obviously did not reflect the reality on the ground. With this in mind, allow me to discuss another such index-the Index of Economic Freedom IEF, which also uses a single standard to score countries.
The Index of Economic Freedom (IEF) was first published by the Heritage Foundation in 1995. In 1997 it became a joint effort between the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. It promoted US aid to countries committed to “free markets”. Analysts in the Heritage Foundation, Wall Street and Brookings Institute believe that if corporations were allowed to freely do business around the world without having to contend with tariffs, regulations and other “trade barriers”, it would naturally result in an equal playing field and prosperity for all. The pitfalls of free trade cannot be lost on African states, victims of the Bretton Wood institutions and the various “structural adjustment programs” imposed as conditions for receiving development aid. Eritrea as a new nation learning from the mistakes of others cannot be swayed by an index that does not take into account a state’s objective reality.
How does one compare 186 very different countries, at different economic development levels, with varying human and natural resources, with varying population demographics, with varying cultures etc. etc. and expect that the outcomes will be fair or accurate? As I read this year’s report on Eritrea and compared it to the other nations in our world, I found this index to be no different than all the other politically motivated indices that sprung up in the early 1990s and the end of the Cold War. No matter the indices-they all repeated the tired and distorted narratives on Eritrea.
The Heritage Foundation decided that Eritrea’s economic status in 2017 is “repressed”, but offered no information on how it came to that conclusion – my bet is that the conclusion was made and the scores fit the desired conclusion. The Heritage Foundation relied on the same sources in putting together its report on Eritrea. The report said:
“…the U.N. Human Rights Council determined in 2016 that the government was guilty of crimes against humanity, a finding that the Eritrean government rejects. Eritrea is also subject to U.N. military and economic sanctions for allegedly supporting armed groups in the Horn of Africa. Copper and gold are important exports, but military spending drains resources from the development of public infrastructure…”
Clearly, the technocrats producing these government-funded “studies” and “research” are not immune to the political environments under which they operate.
Inserting a blatantly false statement undermines the credibility of the IEF report from the get go. The UN Human Rights Council DID NOT determine in 2016, or at any other time, that the government of Eritrea was guilty of crimes against humanity. There was a report, based on a collection of laundered information produced by anti-Eritrea groups, financed by some western institutions, that Sheila Keetharuth, the Special Rapporteur compiled and presented to the UN Human Rights Council, along with her recommendations. The Council did not accept her recommendations nor did they endorse her report. She failed to impress the UN General Assembly’s 3rd Committee which also did not adopt her report and recommendations. The Heritage Foundation, by using discredited information to base its analysis on Eritrea undermines the integrity of its report. GIGO…garbage in garbage out.
Heritage makes no mention of Eritrea’s liberal investment laws, its principled stand to privatize state run-enterprises, competitive and attractive exchange rate, and responsible fiscal policies. Despite what Heritage falsely claims, private investment (local & foreign) can participate in all sectors of the economy with no restrictions and discrimination. Today, there are several foreign private companies working in Eritrea’s thriving mining sector, despite attempts by its enemies to strangulate Eritrea’s economy through sanctions and economic blockades. The usual excuse given by these NGOs when confronted is that they were not able to enter Eritrea. But there are Eritrean Embassies and hundreds of Eritrean Diaspora Communities that can provide them more accurate information, so why rely on unsubstantiated information; “cut and paste” from dubious sources? Injustice to the readers and mostly to the countries, the implications of which are too numerous to present here.
John M. Broder in his 1997 New York Times article, “Big Social Changes Revive the False God of Numbers” wrote about Washington’s growing use of indices in discerning economic and political issues. He wrote:
“…Although Washington places power in numbers as it tries to judge the good or bad of such changes, statistics have often proved a false god… In the national obsession with market statistics, quarterly profits and the won-loss column, government and private experts find themselves trying to measure the largely unmeasurable. They attempt to apply the scientific method to questions that do not lend themselves to simple quantification. In the name of accuracy or advocacy, they fashion a veneer of seeming numerical certainty over what are fundamentally questions of belief…”
These indices which blame and shame Eritrea at every turn cannot be taken seriously, as they do not account for the many issues that affect Eritrea’s economy, including the very hostile international environment under which it operates. These indices do not address or reflect Eritrea’s economic priorities or principled policies. Free trade, in a million years, is not going to allow Eritrea “to build an economy that meets the needs of our people”. Free trade requires erosion of Eritrea’s sovereign rights-including the right to choose her development priorities.
These indices are meant to shame and blame targeted nations such Eritrea who insist on political and economic independence. Robert Reischauer, quoted in the same NY Times article above put it succinctly when he said:
“…We live in a society where policy evaluations have to fit into a sound bite, so there is a tendency to focus on quantitative measures even when they may not be measuring the most important dimensions…A full evaluation of most policies would be multidimensional and include both quantitative indicators and more subjective measures of success and failure…”
There will always be things these indices can’t measure. The EFI cannot measure the impact of the many dams constructed, or the many roads built that are connecting villages and providing trade and other links within the country. The EFI does not take into account Eritrea’s investment in its people’s education and healthcare. The EFI does not take into account the investment climate in Eritrea that welcomes partnership and rejects aid. A single score by an index, such as the EFI, cannot define Eritrea or its economic principles or goals and it certainly can’t measure the impact of Eritrea’s development policies on the standard of living of the people.
Allow me to end with this quote by Bruce Levin, a statistician at Columbia University who once said:
“…This is the glory and the curse of the one-number summary…You take a hundred-dimensional problem like welfare reform and reduce it to one number…While numbers have long been used to deceive and to manipulate public opinion … the more frequent problem is that they tell only part of the story. Statistics can sometimes describe the “what”; they seldom illuminate the “why.” Of course, the alternative — reliance on anecdote or the unsupported testimony of “experts” — is even less useful… politicians labor in vain to apply the discipline of the hard sciences to matters of conjecture and opinion… In scientific inquiry, a statistician can locate sources of bias and error and try to correct for them… Statistics are tools of the scientist… But when numbers are crunched in politics, axes are usually grinding, too…”
Politicized reports do not advance freedom… and undermine the credibility of the authors and the institutions they represent. They do not present an accurate portrayal of the countries that are being ranked and serve as tools for subjugation. Eritrea seeks economic independence. It will never out-source its economic policies and will insist on remaining in control of Eritrea’s vast mineral and other resources, the means of production and utilization of available natural wealth, to improve the lives of the Eritrean people.