The release of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) scorecard for Sierra Leone for the fiscal year 2023 has sparked heated debate. Some praise the government for passing the MCC scorecard for the fourth time in a row and for achieving high ratings, particularly in terms of primary education expenditure, girls’ primary education completion rate, and control of corruption immunization rate, among others.
Others, in turn, raise their eyebrows at the validity of the results, particularly in the ‘Ruling Justly’ category. The scorecard registers, for instance, a 79 % pass for Sierra Leone in the ‘Control of Corruption’ indicator. They assume that the MCC’s methodology must be flawed if Sierra Leone scores high in the ‘Control of Corruption’ indicator while they suffer from the excesses of corruption on a daily basis.
For a country that has also attracted negative attention for its lawlessness, police brutality, bye-elections violence, human rights violations, impunity, the suppression of dissent and democratic rights such as the right to freedom of assembly and association, many citizens were shocked to learn that Sierra Leone achieved high ratings in the rule of law, civil liberties, political rights and Freedom of information all falling in the category of ruling justly. They could not understand how Sierra Leone scored highly in “ruling justly” when state institutions such as the police and the judiciary that are meant to protect their rights are the ones that, on countless occasions, have breached their rights, delivering instead impunity and injustice mostly perpetrated against those perceived as a threat to the poor weak and marginalised.
The mixed reactions described above are understandable first reactions. However, a closer examination of the MCC scorecard’s purpose and methodology suggests no compelling reasons for the government and its supporters to take excessive pride in the outcomes. Likewise, one should not be overly suspicious or hastily conclude that the MCC’s methodology produces unreliable outcomes. To understand its informative value, it’s perhaps better to explain what the MCC scorecard is not rather than what it is.
The reason is that, in a nutshell, the MCC scorecard does not reflect the current state of affairs in Sierra Leone, be it in the ruling justly category or otherwise and does not aim to do so.
The aim of the MCC scorecard is merely to select countries eligible for MCC assistance. Eligibility rests on how well a country performs relative to other countries in the same lower middle-income category on 20 transparent, third-party indicators of the rule of law, economic freedom, and investing in people. Simply put, the fact that a box is green on the scorecard only means that a country meets the required performance standard relative to other countries and might be, therefore, eligible for MCC assistance.
To put things in perspective, let’s take the rule of law. Sierra Leone scored 65 percent. This does not necessarily imply that Sierra Leone is a country that respects the rule of law, nor does it measure the state of the rule of law in Sierra Leone. It does not aim to do this.
This finding is supported by the fact that most of the values on the scorecards are only relative values. For 16 out of the 20 indicators (except for the indicators’ Inflation,’ ‘Immunization Rates,’ ‘Political rights,’ and ‘Civil Liberties’), a country must only score higher than the median score relative to other countries in its income group (either group of low-income countries with GNI/capita ≤ $ 2,045 or middle-income countries with GNI/Capita $2,046–$4,255). For those indicators, a country must not perform better than an absolute threshold.
Attempting to make this clear, let us imagine a school class (the group of low- or middle-income countries) that writes a maths test. The teacher decides that the students do not have to respond correctly to half of the 100 questions of the test to pass (which would be an absolute threshold). He adopts a different approach according to which students already pass if they give a correct answer to more questions than the average of the students (the approach the MCC adopts for most indicators). This implies that if the average of the students correctly answers 20 questions, students who correctly answer 21 questions already pass the test.
Sierra Leone is in the group of low-income countries. This implies that, for most indicators, Sierra Leone achieves a high score if it performs better than countries like Afghanistan, North Korea or Yemen – countries that are not known for their respect for the rule of law. Thus, where for instance, the scorecard registers a 79 % pass for Sierra Leone in the ‘Control of Corruption’ indicator, this does not necessarily mean that Sierra Leone is doing a fantastic job when it comes to fighting corruption. The indicator only tells us that Sierra Leone performs better than other low-income countries. It does not indicate that Sierra Leone performs well in absolute terms. Sierra Leone would certainly achieve a lower score if it were compared to other higher-income countries or all countries of the world.
Herein lies precisely the danger of the MCC’s approach. The use of indicators for which a country must only score higher than the median score relative to other countries in its income group provides little incentive for countries to continue to improve on the indicators once they have passed this hurdle. Countries either pass the hurdle or not. If they pass it, they do not receive further benefits if they pass it by a large margin. If they miss it, they do not have to fear sanctions for missing it by a large margin. A student who has passed the above-mentioned maths test might be satisfied with being better than his classmates. He might be, therefore, reluctant to invest more time in maths to become a good mathematician. The same could happen to Sierra Leone. The country has passed the scorecard only by a small margin. It has passed 11 out of 20 indicators. This could lead to a situation in which the government does neither continue to improve on the passed 11 indicators nor try to pass the missed 9 indicators since the country is already eligible for assistance. As long as other low-income countries do not improve significantly on indicators, Sierra Leone would not need to make additional efforts to perform better than them.
Therefore, there is no reason to be overly proud of the scores and rest on its laurels. Equally so, skeptics should not attribute to the MCC scorecard what it does not intend to do, which is to reflect the daily experiences of Sierra Leoneans, because it is not and never claimed to do so.
Basita Michael is a legal practitioner and founder of Sierraeye Magazine and Louis Jakob Rolfes is completed his 3 months ‘wahlstation’ (traineeship) with ILRAJ in December 2022.