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Can We Map State Instability?

The previous post showed that the Fragile States Index did not capture the fragility of Syria and Libya on the eve of the so-called Arab Spring. The question is then raised about the performance of other indices of state weakness in this this regard. As it turns out, they did little better.

Consider, for example, the World Bank’s 2010 map of political instability (which, unfortunately, simultaneously assesses “absence of violence/terrorism,” a somewhat different issue). On purely cartographic grounds, the map is a disaster: employing an inappropriate Mercator projection, it makes Greenland appear to be the global core of political stability, while its incomplete labeling system is misleading at best. But our concern here is with its categorization scheme, which is also problematic. Note that it placed Libya in the same category of stability as Spain and Brazil, while slotting Syria in the same group as Turkey, China, Russia, and India. What really seems odd, however, is the placement of South Korea, Germany, the UK, and the US in the same category as Mozambique, Benin, and Turkmenistan.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Political Instability Index for 2009-2010 was little better. It put Libya in the same “moderate risk” category as France, the Netherlands, and South Korea. It also depicted Syria as more stable than Cambodia, Ecuador, or the Dominican Republic.

In comparing the various political instability indices from 2010, some intriguing discrepancies stand out. Note that the Economist Intelligence Unit depicted Ethiopia as relatively stable, whereas the World Bank placed it in the most unstable category, as did the Fragile States Index (see the previous post). Different criteria are obviously being used to assess instability.

In regard to more recent maps, the World Bank’s 2012 assessment (its latest) does a somewhat better job, capturing the extreme instability of Syria and Libya. This map does, however, seem to stumble in other parts of the world; note that it depicts South Sudan as more stable that Iran or Colombia. A related 2012 World

Bank Map, this one purporting to measure “government effectiveness,” is less explicable. It classifies Syria as having a more “effective government” than North Korea. Brutal as the North Korean government is, it does at least govern the entire country, unlike the collapsing Syrian government of 2012.

Maplecroft’s 2014 Dynamic Political Risk map makes more intuitive sense than most of its competitors. Still, it seems as if a number of countries are rated as more stable then they actually are, including Ukraine, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Burma (Myanmar), on the other hand, is probably more stable than the map indicates. Maplecroft, a private British “global risk analytics firm,” takes a step beyond most of its competitors by making concrete predictions. As its webpage states:

Maplecroft predicts that the situation in Syria (2nd), Libya (8th) and Egypt (15th) is now so bad that these countries will be mired in exceptionally high levels of dynamic political risk for years to come. This ‘vicious circle’ reflects the self-reinforcing impact of extremely poor governance, conflict, high levels of corruption, persistent regime instability and societal dissent and protest. Illustrating this point, seven of the worst countries for political risk – Somalia (1st), Afghanistan (3rd), Sudan (4th), DR Congo (5th), Central African Republic (6th), South Sudan (9th) and Iraq (10th) – have stayed among the bottom 10 in the Political Risk Atlas for the last six years.

Such predictions seem reasonable. Still, I do wonder if one needs to conduct the detailed and expensive analyses that Maplecroft carries out in order to reach such conclusions.

A completely different method of assessing political instability is found in the Wikipedia Dispute Index Map, which, as it name implies, simply measures disputes in regard to Wikipedia articles pertaining to each country. This map derives from a 2011 PLOS article entitled “Content Disputes in Wikipedia Reflect Geopolitical Instability,” by Gordana Apic, Matthew Betts, and Robert B. Russell. The authors contend that the patterns that they uncovered correlate well with other measurement of geopolitical instability. As they contend:

It is remarkable that so simple a metric can agree so well with more complex measures of political and economic stability. We do not mean to suggest that this indicator could replace existing metrics since the issues mentioned above related to sparse data and language currently preclude this possibility. However, this work does demonstrate that information contained within resources like Wikipedia can be used in interesting and useful new ways that can ultimately complement more arduous metrics.

Although the Wikipedia Dispute Index Map is intriguing, as are the methods used to generate it, I have my doubts about its usefulness. Do the many disputes about Wikipedia articles on Saudi Arabia actually indicate that the country is severely unstable? That seems unlikely. On the other hand, I suspect that Saudi Arabia is more fragile in the long run than its depictions on the other maps of global instability would indicate.


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