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Lies, damned lies and…indexes?

Lies, damned lies and…indexes?
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First Published: Sun, Jul 11 2010. 08 39 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Jul 11 2010. 08 39 PM IST
The adage that there are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies and statistics—debatably attributed to former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, resonated in an era when number-crunching, opinion polls and surveys were in infancy. In today’s world of instant polls, supercomputers and exhaustive surveys based on a battery of indicators, mere statistics are being transformed into compelling indexes that are becoming vital tools for decision makers.
A couple of weeks ago, this newspaper cited the Index of Failed States for 2010 to justifiably label South Asia as a “corner of failed states”. The Global Peace Index (GPI) for 2010, though it used a different and perhaps more constructive approach, reached almost the same depressing conclusion.
In what might be the understatement of the year, the GPI notes that the “world has become slightly less peaceful in the past year”, and argues that in some states the decline in peace “appears to be linked to the global economic downturn”. The index uses 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators ranging from perceptions of criminality in society to level of organized internal conflict and relations with neighbouring countries.
At the top of the GPI chart are the most peaceful states, led by New Zealand, Iceland, Japan and the Nordic countries. Almost predictably, four South Asia states—Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar—are among the bottom 20 of the 149 ranked states. In addition, India (at 128), Bangladesh (87), Nepal (82) and China (80) do not exactly come across as bastions of internal or external peace and stability.
Of all these, Pakistan’s descent into the bottom five—sinking three places since last year—should be of particular concern. Pakistan also earned the dubious distinction of being among the five least peaceful countries between 2007 and 2010. The only shard of optimism for Pakistan was that it might have slipped even further had Islamabad not marginally improved its relations with India and Afghanistan. While many in the region, including in Pakistan, do not wish that country any good, it is worth pondering the negative implications of a less peaceful and unstable Pakistan on the region.
There might be some reason to quibble with the fundamental correlation drawn by the GPI between the intensification of conflicts, on the one hand, and the global economic downturn, on the other. While this may be true for Portugal, Greece and Spain, which experienced the “largest decline in peacefulness of any region”, it does not resonate in the case of India and China, both of which registered high economic growth rates over the past year despite the relative decline in peacefulness. This does not necessarily detract from the basic logic of the GPI argument that both India and China might have performed even better economically had they managed to be more peaceful internally and externally.
Nor does it dispute the fact that South Asia is sadly the most dangerous neighbourhood after sub-Saharan Africa. The irony is that South Asia provides the majority of peacekeepers deployed in sub-Saharan Africa: It is like the fire brigade racing to put out other fires even as the firehouse burns down.
Clearly, India, as the self-professed benign and responsible hegemon in the subcontinent, must bear the onus for building the necessary institutions and providing the essential leadership to not only police the neighbourhood (and ensure the absence of violence), but also to establish “a positive peace of justice, tolerance and plenty”. New Delhi would do well to adhere to these principles while addressing internal security challenges and before embarking on establishing a peaceful external neighbourhood.
Peace comes at a price—those who rank high on the peace index have some of the highest per capita incomes in the world and are also among the most expensive. For India, the dominant regional and increasingly global economic powerhouse, establishing peace in its neighbourhood might prove to be a cheaper investment in the longer run.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight
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First Published: Sun, Jul 11 2010. 08 39 PM IST