Washington - The rule of law - a critical element of good governance – thrives best in Sweden, the Netherlands and in several other wealthy nations but is sorely lacking in Pakistan, Kenya, and Liberia, among other poor countries, according to a major new index released here Thursday by the World Justice Project (WJP).
The Rule of Law Index, which assessed 35 countries around the world on nine key variables, suggested that high-income countries generally respect the rule of law more than poor countries.
At the same time, however, it found wide differences in performance on specific variables within and between countries of varying incomes.
Argentina, a middle-income country, did notably better on one key subvariable - access to legal counsel - than the United States or Canada, for example, while Mexico, Colombia, and India scored significantly better than Singapore and several other high-income countries on open government, the 125-page report found.
"The situation in middle-income countries is particularly interesting," said Alejandro Ponce, WJP's senior economist who helped designed the new index as well as other indices that are used by the World Bank where he served earlier in his career. "They tend to rank well in some areas and not so well in others."
Indeed, India, ranked 9th on the Index in the area of open government but 27th in access to the civil justice system. Similarly, Ghana, a low-income nation, placed 12th among all 35 countries in the area of ensuring effective limits on government power. But it scored 26th overall in the area of order and security due to high rates of crime and vigilante justice.
The Index, which intends to expand its assessments to cover 100 countries by 2012, comes amid growing attention to the rule of law in securing the quality of governance necessary for successful economic and social development.
"The rule of law is the foundation for communities of opportunity and equity – it is the predicate for the eradication of poverty, violence, corruption, pandemics, and other threats to civil society," said William Neukom, WJP's president who formerly served as president of the American Bar Association which launched the WJP, with help from, among others, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in 2006.
The nine variables used by the study included "limited government powers," or checks and balances; the absence of corruption; the clarity, publication, and stability of laws; order and security; respect for fundamental rights, including the absence of discrimination; the openness and transparency of government; fairness and effectiveness of the enforcement of government regulations; access to civil justice; and the effectiveness and impartiality of the formal and informal criminal justice.
All countries were assessed on their performance on those variables, scores for which were derived from quantitative and weighted assessments of three to eight sub-variables for each variable. Altogether, the Index scored 49 sub- variables.
The scores were based on data accumulated by surveys of 1,000 residents of the three largest cities in each of the 35 countries regarding their experience and perceptions and on the results of detailed questionnaires filled out by a total of 900 local legal experts.
The methodology and results were independently reviewed by the European Commission Joint Research Centre which found the Index to be "consistently and conceptually coherent".
The Index did not, however, provide an overall aggregate score and ranking for each country, but only for each of the nine variables. "You lose a lot of richness of the report by providing an aggregate number, because a country may be very good in one category and very poor in another," Ponce told IPS. "The strength of the Index is that it is action- oriented; it tells people where improvement is needed."
Nonetheless, the Index suggests a high correlation between high-income countries and the strength of the rule of law and between most poor countries and its weakness. Sweden, for example, ranked first of the 35 countries five of the nine variables, while the Netherlands ranked second or third in seven of the nine.
Pakistan, on the other hand, scored the lowest – 34th or 35th in five of the variables and 32nd or 33rd in three of the other four. In "order and security," which dealt with the absence of crime and violence, it ranked 24th, higher than, among others, most of the Latin American and sub- Saharan African countries covered in the survey.
Kenya also scored poorly in the survey. It ranked between 33 and 35 on six of the nine variables. It did best with respect to criminal justice, where it ranked 25th, ahead of most of the Latin American countries, Pakistan, Liberia and Nigeria.
Liberia also scored near the bottom, placing in the last three ranks in five of the nine variables. But it ranked 16th in open government.
Among the five African countries, South Africa generally scored highest, claiming the 10th to 18th global rank in eight of the nine variables. On order and security, however, it ranked a dismal 34th, just ahead of nearby Liberia.
While Pretoria scored highest in the regional African group in five of the nine variables, Ghana claimed the top spot in the other four. Nigeria generally fell between those two top performers and Liberia and Kenya.
Performance among the seven Latin American countries covered by the Index was mixed. Peru claimed the best performance of the group on checks and balances, the absence of corruption, and fundamental rights and was second on criminal justice. Colombia, claimed the top spot in open government, effective regulation, and access to civil justice, but came in last on order and security.
Bolivia was the region's laggard with the worst or second- worst ranking on seven of the nine variables. Mexico gained the lowest ranking on corruption, effective regulation, and access to civil justice but ranked second to Colombia on open government. Globally, Bolivia ranked 35th on criminal justice; Mexico 34th.
Among developing countries in Asia, Thailand led the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Pakistan in most variables, ranking as high as 13th globally in fundamental rights and criminal justice, but 28th in the clarity and stability of its laws and 24th in open government.
Among the 11 wealthiest countries covered by the survey, Austria ranked nearly as high as Sweden and the Netherlands on most variables, topping the list on fundamental rights and criminal justice. While Singapore scored highest on order and security, it received the lowest ranking of the 11 on fundamental rights and open government.
Among the same 11 nations, the U.S. ranked ninth or below on six of the nine variables, including 10th on absence of corruption and fundamental rights and last on access to civil justice. South Korea ranked last or second-to-last on six of the nine variables.