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A rebuttal on “Somebody might have briefed the President with conflicting Environmental Performance Index Report”

By Abu-Bakar S. Massaquoi

Context

This is a rebuttal to an article written by Ishmail K. Dumbuya, and published today by Standard Times, which is entitled: “Somebody might have briefed the President with Conflicting EPI report”. The article (http://standardtimespress.org/?p=8042) addresses comments about environmental governance made by H.E President Bio during the opening of the fifth parliament this week. Ishmail’s major contention appears to be with the point that “…Sierra Leone has been consistently ranked at the bottom of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI); ranked 163 out of 163 countries in 2010…”. My good friend, Ishmail, argues that not only is this reference wrong, it is probably a ploy to misinform the public about the “true environmental performance” of the country since 2010. Here is a direct quote from the article: “this may have been a wrong EPI report deliberately briefed to the President in order to misinform him about the present state of the Sierra Leonean Environment”. Further, he states: “whether the wrong information was given to the President or not with the aim to discredit someone somewhere, only time will tell”. At the heart of Ishmail’s case, therefore, is that the reference year (2010) and overall environmental performance assessment are both dated and fundamentally unfit for the current purpose- a New Direction that must draw on data published in 2018 rather than 2010. Consequently, in this rebuttal, I will briefly explain what EPI’s measure, why the SLPP might have used the 2010 index (rather than a more recent index), and why the EPI methodology and data might not be completely generalisable to our context.

What is an EPI? What does it measure?

An EPI is a scorecard that measures environmental performance, thus providing guidance for countries that seek to move from being “laggards” to “leaders” in environmental best practice and sustainability. The EPI promises to consolidate the growing body of global environmental data to help practitioners and policy-makers to parse through such data more quickly, and make better sense of causal and temporal complexities and variances. The indicators (which vary in quantity and quality by year) ground national and global environmental policy practice in a set of environmental performance measures that permit peer-group benchmarking of relevant data and contexts. The data is mostly gleaned from carefully selected published literature as well as expert insights sought through interviews (to give some face validity to the default and other secondary data analysed). Still, the index does not delineate an adequate scope for environmental performance, though its authors argue that it is so far, the best coverage of the most scientifically relevant and politically pressing environmental issues. The authors also argue that the index is based on a detailed methodology and critical transparency, lending largely from experience gained through an 18-year run, starting from the pilot Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) published in 2000.

Overall, the EPI is a fundamental starting point for experts and policy-makers with a keen interest in understanding current trends in environmental change and natural resource governance, and who seek to spotlight best practices and successful policy models to improve cross-country and cross-sectoral environmental performance, and induce cross-level and cross-scale policy engagement. More important perhaps, is the connection the index shows between environmental policy and development performance (health trends, food and water security, energy sustainability, gender mainstreaming, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation etc), making it a good resource for gauging national implementation of various Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) and the attainment of critical Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The EPI can, therefore, be used as a path to set explicit national environment and development goals, measure quantitative and qualitative progress towards these goals, and evaluate near-term and long-range policy change.

Why 2010, not 2018? A case the SLPP can make

Page 8 (http://www.ciesin.org/documents/EPI_2010_report.pdf) of the 2010 EPI places Sierra Leone at 163 out of 163 countries, while the 2018 EPI, which ranks 180 countries on 24 performance indicators across 10 issue categories, places Sierra Leone at 155. The 2010 EPI covered 163 countries, which was up from the 149 covered in the 2008 EPI. The number of countries changes every year, as does the quality of indicators, so Sierra Leone’s ranking at 155 in 2018 (versus a ranking at 163 in 2010) does not necessarily indicate an improvement in environmental performance. Therefore, one important drawback of Ishmail’s argument for using a more recent dataset is the fact that EPIs are of indicative value only, comparing data across functions of environmental health and ecosystem vitality in the context of a constantly increasing number of countries. Another critical shortcoming is the failure to understand that while 2018 indicators may largely be similar to those used for previous assessments, some significant weighting details progressively change. For instance, environmental health is now weighted at 40% and ecosystem vitality at 60% (unlike previous years), indicating that a more recent index cannot technically be used to show improvement in relation to older reports.

Much of the environmental data available and used in-country for various environmental analyses (GHG inventories, climate modelling, land degradation assessments etc) date back to the period 2000 to 2010. Default (spatial) data used to prepopulate reporting templates for analysis undertaken as recently as 2017-2018 (such as the UNCCD PRAIS 3 national land degradation reporting) cover the same period. What this means is that using more recent default data (as in the case of the 2018 EPI) for which a national comparative analysis has not been undertaken, exposes policy-makers and practitioners to the mistake of expressing environmental performance without a common (comparable) reference impact. Simply put, 2010 provides “normalization factors” for understanding previous and current EPIs, by considering environmental data that is more relevant, generated through a methodology that can be cross-validated nationally. Likewise, the 2010 EPI allows for gauging “data quality” and “time series availability” because data not only account for spatial and temporal coverage but also consider on-the-ground results-in-use for each environmental issue of concern. This is to say that the 2010 EPI (not the 2018 EPI) provides the “best available data” for gauging the country’s environmental performance until a more recent and relevant (national) evidence becomes available.

While my commentary does not argue that the 2018 EPI (or more recent EPIs) should not be included in national environmental policy and decision-making, it underscores that the 2010 EPI offers a more comprehensive look across the environmental policy challenges of the country because it makes claims that can be (or have been) verified locally. The SLPP is, therefore, right in making 2010 a reference year for offering a rough gauge of environmental policy progress since 2007. The point is that although the issue categories covered by the 2018 EPI are extensive, they are not comprehensive. The authors of the index note that for the 2018 assessment, where “no better national datasets are available…”, they were forced to include an “imperfect (default) dataset”. As experts, the best way to validate the proximity-to-target methodology followed by the EPI is to define national benchmarks on the basis of new, relevant, and robust evidence. By using available national data to validate new EPIs, policy-makers and practitioners can see how their performance may have changed in that period, and what the country’s score might be in the future. Hence, cross-validation allows practitioners and researchers alike to drill down to better understand the underlying causes of high or low environmental performance.

The EPI Index- a technically flawed or flaked methodology?

In general, my comments on the broad utility of the 2010 EPI (when compared to the 2018 EPI) in the context of Sierra Leone, calls the validity (mainly conceptual consistency) and generalizability of the EPI methodology into question. What supports that position is the understanding that the EPI emerged as a reaction to widely published critiques of the methodological deficiencies of a much earlier index- Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI). While significantly refined to serve the current purpose, the EPI is still considered (by most scholars) a “work-in-progress” due to its limited “explanatory power”. Recent publications of the index make certain that the authors do not claim to have delivered a scientifically sound, comprehensive piece of work. Rather, it is expected that countries have an analytically sound composite index that provides a basis for validating scores provided by EPIs. The key argument, however, is that EPIs (whether recent or not) can generate remarkable political and media attention, and have a tremendous positive impact on country-level environmental decision-making. Thus, rather than entertaining the wrong thought that the President may have been misinformed, one should seek to further expose national environmental challenges highlighted by the index, and identify more entry points for generating cross-country datasets that can be used to compare and validate global default data. It is my view, therefore, that while the 2018 EPI may be more recent, and EPI methodologies generally have drawbacks, the 2010 EPI referenced by the President sufficiently mirrors the specific dimensions of environmental issues in Sierra Leone. It, thus, gives the new government more leverage to capture and assess the post-2010 environmental performance of the country, seek to address the pivotal problems in the different policy areas highlighted in the manifesto, and stimulate a broad debate on the need for scientifically sound cross-country methodologies and datasets.

Conclusion

The President’s factual reference to the 2010 EPI throws up many questions for further research and action. Firstly, it stresses the importance of data-driven environmental decision-making, and raises the issue of what can be done differently (under the New Direction) to easily and professionally spot problems, track trends, and highlight policy successes and failures. The lack of cross-country data to validate more recent (global) research findings, makes it harder to identify and adopt best practices and optimize gains from near-term and long-range investments in environmental governance. Secondly, the President’s statement initiates a debate about what national environmental agencies (such as the Environment Protection Agency- EPA) must do to move from being laggards to leaders in regional and global environmental performance. The question that raises is thus: how can national environmental agencies make better use of the media and political attention stirred by EPI publications (and the President’s statement) to further the raging scientific debate on the significance of cross-country data and indicator development? In both cases, good environmental governance (as promised by President Bio) emerges as the key factor required to balance the distinct dimensions of research, management, and sustainability. I will examine the real value of proposed environmental strategies in the New Direction manifesto in my next article, focusing specifically on the mechanics and politics of existing institutional arrangements and organisational networks.

Author’s profile

Abu-Bakar S. Massaquoi, the Executive Director/Principal Consultant at Green Growth Facility (GGF) SL Ltd, is a Sustainability Scientist specializing in Energy, Environment, Development, and Climate Change. He holds a PhD in Geography and Environmental Science; Masters Degrees in Environmental Management, Development Studies, and Carbon Management; and a BSc Hons in Energy Studies. Abu-Bakar is adept at the analysis of environmental change, specifically the adaptive collaborative governance of Social-Ecological Systems (SES) and the Political Ecology (PE) of environmental governance and sustainable development in Africa more broadly. He has delivered projects funded by EU, USAID West Africa, Global Environment Facility (GEF), USDA Forest Service, and various UN agencies, and led consulting teams providing advisory services and technical support to UNDP Africa, AU/AMCEN, AfDB, UNCCD, government MDAs, and businesses. His most recent assignments include: 1) managing all aspects of an Africa-wide consultancy for the design of a 5-year programme on climate change adaptation and loss and damage for the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN)- a specialized agency of the African Union- and the African Group of Negotiators (AGN); 2) leading a CDKN research into policy and community learning choices and consequences for climate governance in East Africa; 3) coordinating a DFID/GCRF-funded interdisciplinary research project on the governance of inclusive green growth in Africa; 4) developing a climate change adaptation strategy for the USAID-funded West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WABICC) programme- a programme implemented in 12 West African countries; and 5) leading all aspects of an environmental communications project implemented by the USDA Forest Service (International Programmes) in 8 countries. Abu-Bakar was the first National Programme Coordinator of the UNDP-UNOPS/GEF Small Grants Programme for Sierra Leone. He is currently the UNCCD Expert for the preparation of national drought policy documents and National Consultant for the 2017-2018 UNCCD reporting on land degradation (trends in land cover change, land productivity, and soil carbon above and below ground). Comments and questions on this rebuttal can be forwarded to massaquoiabubakar@gmail.com

Read the article by Ishmael Kindama Dumbuya here http://standardtimespress.org/?p=8042

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