There has been a rise in global statistical initiatives that measure and rank
countries in terms of various aspects of the human condition. Some of the
more prominent examples include the World Governance, the Global Peace
and the Corruption Perceptions
Each ranks countries according to a series of indicators, or a composite
indicator, and tracks their progress or decline over time.
One of the most recent global indicator projects is the It ranks 142
countries based on a perception survey relating to personal safety and
policing, from a representative sample of 1000 people in each country.
Knowing how secure, or insecure people feel is important because
insecurity affects economic growth and undermines development.
According to the recently released 2018 South Africa ranks high in the
insecurity index – 137 out 142 countries. This means that South Africans
would have expressed high levels of insecurity as well as fear that they were
likely to, or had already, fallen victim to crime.
The ranking suggests that South Africans consider themselves to be more
insecure, and having lower levels of confidence in the police, compared to
people in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central
African Republic (CAR), Libya and Mali. These are all unstable states
affected by violent conflict and high levels of instability.
This is surprising given that South Africa is not in a state of armed conflict
and is relatively stable. The possible reason for such a questionable ranking
is that the survey, like many global perception surveys, doesn’t adequately
account for the extent to which people will provide unreliable information
about sensitive issues. To improve accuracy, surveys like this should factor
in differences in context.
The rankings are based on an index score derived from responses to the
● In the city or area where you live, do you have confidence in the local police
● Do you feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where you live?
● Within the last 12 months, have you had money or property stolen from you
or another household member?
● Within the past 12 months, have you been assaulted or mugged?
It’s undeniable that South Africa has high levels of insecurity and
interpersonal crime. And, there’s a significant trust deficit between citizens
and the police.
Ranking South Africa below the DRC, Mali and Libya is also questionable
given that the security forces and militias in those countries have been
widely regarded as predatory and highly abusive.
So what’s missing?
Firstly, context is key.
A key shortcoming of using survey data about crime and insecurity to
construct indices and rankings is that people won’t always reply to
questions honestly and accurately.
To improve the accuracy of indices like this, it would be advisable to
develop a quantifiable weighting for the reliability of crime and insecurity
survey data for each country, and then apply the weighting to the overall
index score. For example, in countries with more authoritarian
governments, respondents are likely to under report their levels of trust in
the police and sense of personal insecurity.
Applying a reliability weighting would adjust the overall insecurity index
score to better reflect people’s lived reality. Such a weighting can be
developed by including additional questions in the survey, for example
about how willing respondents are to talk to strangers about sensitive
information, including views about their governments.