Better measures for better responses

2017-12-01

Transnational organised crime (TOC) is inherently difficult to observe and quantify. The lack of good data remains a weak spot across a range of crime types that can be classified as TOC. Taking this as a point of departure, the ENACT project is creating a number of measurement tools to help overcome these shortfalls and provide an improved evidence base for policymaking.

The Organised Crime in Africa Vulnerability Assessment Tool, to be launched in 2018, will serve as multi-dimensional measure of organised crime and its impact, while the ENACT TOC Incident Monitor systematically codes media articles on TOC incidents. This research is intended to inform futures modelling, which will allow for TOC on the continent to be viewed through a long-term, development-focused lens. 

With these tools, we will have new ways to assess the scale and impact of TOC on different countries and regions in Africa. We will also have a much firmer grasp on the role of the media, and what it can tell us about different TOC types in Africa. Further, we’ll be able to project the discussion beyond the present day, and ask how Africa’s changing realities will shape – and be shaped – by TOC.

The lack of good data remains a weak spot across various types of transnational organised crime

Measuring any social phenomenon is intrinsically complex, yet it is the foundation on which effective policy should be based. Policymakers need to understand the magnitude and the likely drivers of the problems they are trying to target so that they can make informed decisions. Reliable data can greatly help policymakers in these efforts.

The increasing popularity of governance indices and, more recently, conflict data in policymaking, is testament to the potential value of social data to policymakers. This kind of data can be visualised in ways that make it more accessible and help to colour long pages of text, and it also enables relatively quick, comparative analysis.

Governance indicators such as the Worldwide Governance Indicators Project or the Ibrahim Index of African Governance aggregate multiple dimensions of state-society relationships; for instance, the strength of rule of law, security provision, tax collection and the degree of press freedom with other indicators to provide a snapshot of the experience of citizenry and government in a given country.

With these tools, we’ll be able to ask how Africa’s changing realities will shape – and be shaped – by organised crime

Similarly, conflict data – such as the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset (ACLED) and the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) – provide the ability to analyse and compare fatality counts, track activity spikes over months or years, and identify how sub-national armed actors operate.

When there is a sufficient amount of quality data on a set of related phenomena, we can use it to help describe the causes or drivers of changes and trends. In that way, we can move away from assumed or proposed links between phenomena and towards more empirically grounded responses to, for instance, the impact of illicit arms trading on the triggers for conflict.

Data frees us from having to rely on anecdotal or overly specific cases, where the causal relationship between two factors only applies; for example, to a certain country in a certain year. Data can also offer a more objective standpoint by showing countries’ performance on specific indicators relative to peer countries. According to Mohammed Ibrahim, of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, data-driven policy making allows for a ‘more rational public debate on sensitive topics.’

Measuring any social phenomenon is intrinsically complex, yet it is the foundation for effective policy

The application of data-driven outputs has many forms. Data in the ENACT Vulnerability Assessment Tool will be used to present a scale of different forms of TOC and their impact in African countries relative to their peer nations. This will allow policymakers to better understand how one country may be affected by certain forms of TOC more than others, and identify key drivers that make a country more susceptible to a form of organised crime.

The data generated in the TOC Incident Monitoring project will provide an additional measure of the incidents or acts of a number of organised crime types in a number of countries on the continent.

The data generated for the futures work will go a step further by providing the opportunity to extrapolate trends in key development indicators, such as the level of informality in an economy or bilateral trade relations. These would feed into various scenarios to indicate how differing development trajectories impact on the risks associated with organised criminality, and how organised criminality may impact on development trajectories.

However, finding and using reliable quantitative data to measure and project organised crime trends is particularly challenging.

Strong enough data on the phenomenon being assessed may not be available. This means that when it comes to measuring something deeply complex, we often settle for a second-best indicator and then generalise about what that proxy tells us. The issue here is the validity of the proxy indicator as an accurate measure of the phenomenon under measurement ­– in other words, the reliability of the data. In the field of TOC, there are ongoing debates on this issue, debates which, given the paucity of some of the more relevant data, are unlikely to be resolved soon.

Finding reliable data to measure and project crime trends is particularly challenging

Given that many aspects of TOC are and will remain next to impossible to quantify, responsible quantitative data-driven policy recommendations should at a minimum be clear on limitations: what could not be measured, what actually was measured, and the criteria for the selection of these indicators. 

This is likely to assist with the two most important questions that those working in the applied policy or programming fields need to answer: namely, what level of reliability is good enough to catalyse a response, and from whom? This is especially important in contexts where wide-ranging complicity in organised crime undermines the institutional or political will to address it.

Practically, this means that perhaps the most important issue for those involved in the measurement of organised crime in Africa may have little to do with the actual method of measurement – rather, it is a clear understanding of the purpose of the measurement, the likely interest in it and the key audience for its dissemination.

Ciara Aucoin, Researcher, ENACT, ISS 

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ENACT is funded by the European Union
ENACT is implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL, in
affiliation with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime
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