Thursday, February 4, 2016

FP: Indices can be flawed, but they tell an important story (Feb. 4, 2016)

A great piece in Foreign Policy looks at the widely-cited Freedom House index of global freedom.

Ilya Lozovsky examines the many criticisms of the index, which is compiled by country experts who assign numerical scores for each of a country's 10 political rights indicators and 15 civil liberties indicators. It is "by definition, an arbitrary exercise," he writes.

But nonetheless, the numbers have huge impact in international policy circles -- governments pay attention to their scores, and international development agencies follow each year’s results and use them to guide their policies.

"'Freedom in the World' works not because it's scientifically rigorous — it works because it deftly packages a complex phenomenon into a powerful, easily-understood message."

Though the piece obviously refers to the Freedom House index, it's interesting to extrapolate the reasons for its value to other indices that have important media and policy impact, but can also seem overly simplistic to experts.

See posts on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index last week and last Thursday's briefs on the Mexican Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y Justicia Penal A.C. released it's annual city homicide rate roundup. The specific methodologies are different from Freedom House's, though they also have their critics. (See, for example, El Faro journalist Roberto Valencia's argument against the city homicide index in Tuesday's briefs.)

Nonetheless, part of their importance and popularity relates to the reasons outlined by Lozovsky: they provide a narrative to very difficult phenomena and permit non-experts a way of tracking annual evolution.

News Briefs

  • Peace is almost unimaginable for many Colombians, said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos speaking at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center yesterday. "Most Colombians have never seen one day of peace," he said according to the Los Angeles Times. "Colombia got accustomed to war. You ask people what they think about peace, and they are afraid. It is change." Santos is due to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama today, and is expected to ask for a significant increase in aid to fund peace efforts. (See yesterday's post.) After spending about $10 billion over the past fifteen years, the Los Angeles Times signals that "Colombia fatigue" might factor against the request. But a bipartisan group of 57 House members, issued a letter this week urging Obama to provide Colombia with "robust and concrete support" to enact peace accords. Given the investment in war through Plan Colombia, the letter stated, the U.S. "needs to demonstrate that same commitment to peace now."
  • Venezuela imports bolivar bills by the planeload as the government boosts the supply of the country's increasingly worthless currency, reports the Wall Street Journal. The three-dozen 747 cargo planes loaded with bills could exacerbate the problem, according to economists, who say that injecting large numbers of freshly printed notes will likely fuel inflation. The International Monetary Fund estimates will this year hit 720 percent, the world’s highest rate.
  • Transparency wha? Over half of Mexico's federal functionaries declined to clarify if they have potential conflict of interest in their appointments, despite instructions from President Enrique Peña Nieto to do so, over a year ago. And six of the 17 secretaries of state have similarly declined, reports El País
  • Humberto Moreira, a Mexican former governor who spent a week in a Spanish jail on suspicion of money laundering last month, returned home after a Spanish judge rejected arguments that he had transferred 200,000 euros in illegitimate funds to Spain in 2013, reports the New York Times.
  • A group of Brazilian human rights organizations is requesting the Public Ministry accompany and control the Military Police at protests, after a series of reports of security force misconduct at demonstrations in São Paulo, reports El País. The reports date back to the 2013 bus-fare protests, but also detail violent repression in protests against the World Cup in 2014, and, most recently, against student protesters towards the end of last year. (See post for Dec. 2, 2015 on the protests and briefs on Dec. 22, 2015, on a group of parents that went to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to denounce violations committed against the students by the Military Police.
  • Eight Brazilian police officers were sentenced to between 10 and 14 years in prison for the torture, forced disappearance and murder of a man after they had interrogated him at a Rio de Janeiro police station in 2013. The case of construction worker Amarildo de Souza, who was not under investigation for any crime, became an example of the wider problem of torture and homicide by Brazilian police, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune
  • Zika panic corner: Brazilian officials report two cases of the Zika virus being transmitted through blood transfusion, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff took to the airwaves yesterday to urge citizens to help fight against the mosquito that carries the virus, reports the Wall Street Journal. Rousseff called for a mass mobilization on Feb. 13, will involve hundreds of thousands of personnel from the armed forces as well as public officials in a house-to-house campaign to identify and eradicate the stagnant water used by mosquitos as breeding grounds, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil is examining the 4,783 cases of microcephaly reported since October. About 400 have been confirmed, while another 700 cases do not suffer from the birth defect, a rare condition in which babies are born with unusually small heads. Health authorities in Brazil are debating how to determine the parameters for doctors to report cases, and deciding what level of sensitivity is best, reports the New York Times.
  • The surging reports are igniting a debate over the country's abortion laws, which make the procedure illegal in most cases. Legal scholars in Brasilia are preparing a case for the Supreme Court arguing pregnant women should be permitted to have abortions when their fetuses are found to have abnormally small heads, reports the New York Times. Already one judge in Brazil has said he'll permit women to have legal abortions in such cases. And activists in Recife are seizing on the crisis to counter conservative lawmakers who want to further restrict legal abortions --Brazil's laws are already among the most stringent in Latin America.

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