Behind the numbers – a look at ND-GAIN

How do you compare where countries stand on climate change? How vulnerable are they to slow or fast changes, and how prepared are they to adapt?

Most likely, you’ll turn to one of the several “big data” platforms around which can give you a good summary (See: Maplecroft Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CCVI) and Risk AtlasClimate Change Vulnerability Index, Climate Vulnerability Monitor (CVM), and there are others…) The general approach is to average lots of different indicators together to give you an overall score that’s comparable to other countries, usually with aesthetically pleasing graphics to go with.

Climate Vulnerability Monitor Explained ... sort of.

Climate Vulnerability Monitor Explained … sort of.

It’s commendable that so much data on vulnerability is available to anyone that wants to find it. However, indicators like these have a problem of politics. That is – they pretend not to have any. Obscure indicators and pretty colours mask the fact that situations behind datasets are often contested, power driven and messy. The end result is that power dynamics are masked behind a simplifying number.

Take the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN). It describes itself as the “world’s leading” index for measuring adaptation, and is aimed at policy makers and private actors. Global agriculture giant Monsanto described it as “an extremely valuable tool”, and new partnerships for the Index are integrating it into adaptation consultancies work on supporting corporate adaptation programs. Recently, its creators claimed that the world’s poorest countries lagged 100 years behind the developed world in terms of readiness to adapt to climate change. It’s CEO, Juan Jose Daboub, happens to be chair of the World Economic Forum Council on Climate Change. Since the WEF includes some of the world’s most influential corporations and governments, it’s not unlikely that some of its members use ND GAIN to guide adaptation decisions.

The index measures “vulnerability” on the one hand, and “readiness” to adapt on the other, merging them together to give you an overall score. In theory, it approximates to how much climatic trouble that country is in compared to others. The vulnerability score measures a range of physical factors, (health, rainfall, changes in food production, coastal infrastructure etc).

But it’s the readiness score which raises eyebrows. The methodology of the index defines readiness as “the ability of a country’s private and public sectors to absorb financial resources and mobilize them efficiently to reduce climate change vulnerability”. That’s all very open and vague, giving equal weight to public and private sector resources. But how is the readiness score constituted?

The “readiness” score takes three categories, “governance”, “social” and “economic”. Each one is made up of a series of indicators contributing to an overall score for that category. They are then amalgamated together, but crucially, it gives the “economic” score twice the weight of the other two when it merges them together – so the readiness score is composed of 50% economic factors, 25% social, and 25% governance. That automatically puts economic policy ahead of other factors like political will, or community cohesion.

Looking closer, the ND-GAIN “economic” factors are borrowed from the Index of Economic Freedom (IEF), developed by the “Heritage Foundation”, an American conservative think tank, whose mission according to their website “is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense” (emphasis their own). To be clear, any index coming from an American conservative think tank is going to have a certain bias as to what constitutes “good” and “bad” economics.


ND Gain – Map

The IEF gives higher scores to countries that promote free trade, cut business regulation, have low or regressive tax regimes, “tight” monetary policy, low government spending, low financial regulation, fewer rights for workers (translated as “labour freedom”) and independent central banks. So a higher score on the IEF will have a significant impact on the “readiness” rating of a country, meaning that a good part of “readiness” actually equates to “having a similar economic system to the US”. All this is problematic, because it implies that the only way for developing countries to adapt to climate change successfully is to change their economic systems to ones that embody “traditional American values”.

In the real world, the ND-Gain readiness ranking is way off the mark for some countries. Bangladesh comes in at 145th, but Bangladesh has shown itself to be a leader in climate adaptation action, qualifying for World Bank Climate Investment Funding before anyone else, and being one of the few developing countries to set up its own nationally financed climate adaptation fund. The ruling party has shown significant political will for adaptation programs, and there have been many successful community oriented programs successfully reducing the risk of natural disasters.

Ethiopia comes in at a lowly 168, – mostly because of its heavily regulated state led development policy and the use of its national development bank to control investment. Despite its lack of “economic freedom”, Ethiopia’s GDP is set to grow at 8% by the International Monetary Fund. It is, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development, “one of the few countries to have formally merged its aims of developing a green economy and greater resilience to climate change under a single policy framework in support of its national development objectives.” Like Bangladesh, it also has a nationally supported fund for adapting to climate change.

If the financial crisis has taught us anything, it’s that economics is not simply a matter of slashing financial regulation and limiting government spending. When the ND-GAIN claims that developing countries are 100 years behind, they are really implying is that developing countries aren’t showing proper willingness to adopt the same economic systems as that preferred by the conservative right in the US, by not welcoming the private sector and opening the floodgates to foreign investment. Let’s be clear, the last time developing countries did try the wholehearted free market approach, it resulted in what is now known as “the lost decade” of development. Of course, other factors hinder adaptation as well, but by emphasizing certain economic ones, you’re making a political choice. 

Indexes like ND-GAIN should be more honest and open about the ideological biases within their methodologies. This would allow open, frank and engaged debates about the future of adaptation, being clear about the contested situations that lie behind the data, and allowing decison-makers to make principled and coherent policy on adaptation.