Grain of salt

Marvin A. Tort

Posted on June 08, 2017

I like my food salty, despite the health risks. I have been warned often enough. But, I still find it difficult to consume food with little to no salt, even if they are rich in flavor. Some say eating without salt is just a matter of getting used to -- a matter of taste, in fact, that one can get accustomed to over time.

While this may be the case, my love for salt has apparently crossed over, and now affects even my “consumption” of “news.” Take the case of the recent report that the “Philippines [is the] second least peaceful nation in [the] Asia Pacific” and among the least peaceful countries in the world as it ranked 138th out of 163 nations.

This was in the “2017 Global Peace Index” or GPI, which ranked the following as the five least peaceful countries: Israel, Russia, North Korea, Syria and the United States. Ranked as the five most peaceful countries were Iceland, Hungary, Slovenia, Bhutan and Portugal. In 2016, ranked five least peaceful were Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

In the Asia-Pacific region in 2017, in terms of peacefulness, we reportedly beat only North Korea, which was said to have ranked 150th. New Zealand was reportedly rated the most peaceful in the region, and ranked second in the world. The report was by the Institute for Economics and Peace, which claims to be “the world’s leading think tank dedicated to developing metrics to analyze peace and to quantify its economic benefits.”

The institute is based in Sydney, Australia and was founded by an Australian businessman who chairs a leading information technology that is publicly listed. The institute develops “global and national indices, calculating the economic cost of violence, analyzing country level risk, and understanding positive peace.”

The institute, on its Web site, also says its “research is used extensively by governments, academic institutions, think tanks, nongovernmental organizations and by intergovernmental institutions such as the OECD, The Commonwealth Secretariat, the World Bank, and the United Nations.”

Online information on its methodology notes that the GPI ranking looks into 22 indicators, including a country’s ongoing domestic and international conflicts; level of harmony or discord within a nation; safety and security in society; number of deaths from organized conflicts; level of perceived criminality in society; number of inmates and policemen relative to population; terrorist activity; etc.

In its 2017 GPI, the institute put the Philippines at 138th and attributed this to its assessment that the “Philippines’ homicide rate, incarceration rate and number of deaths from internal conflict have all deteriorated. The extrajudicial killings of alleged criminals, drug mules, and users have significantly increased security risks, even for ordinary citizens who could potentially get caught in the crossfire.”

This development invariably puts in bad light the so-called “war against drugs” of the Duterte administration, which creates the perception -- rightly or wrongly -- that the Philippines has become a more violent nation in the last 12 months. After all, if a country is second least peaceful in the region, then this implies it is also second most violent, right?

The 138th ranking, in fact, can indict not only the “war against drugs” but also the very administration that conducts it. Although, in fairness to the GPI assessment, it never labelled the extrajudicial killings as state-sponsored. However, the conclusion remains that the assessment of deteriorating peace and order conditions happened under Duterte’s watch.

The GPI report I cannot help but take with a grain of salt. This is not to say that I question the metrics. I am sure the metrics and methodology are reliable and credible. However, I believe the GPI report should be taken in the context that in 2014 -- or three years ago and under a different administration, and minus the ongoing “war on drugs” -- the Philippines already ranked 134th in the index that year.

Last year, with the Duterte administration assuming office only in June, the Philippine was in fact ranked 139th. And then this year, the country is ranked a lower 138th, which is actually an improvement. But, instead of noting the fact that we actually improved in ranking -- even if by just one notch -- it was highlighted that we are second least peaceful in the Asia-Pacific region, second only to North Korea.

I am not defending the government’s war on drugs, nor am I defending the spate of extrajudicial killings. There have been enough killings, whether by criminals, or terrorists, or deranged gunmen. However, I believe that reports and indices on peace should all be seen and interpreted in proper context. From 139th last year to 138th this year is an improvement, and that is a fact.

In the last eight years, our ranking in the index have been somewhat consistent. We have always found ourselves in a band, a rank range of 130th to 141st. In 2010, we ranked the best in the last eight years at 130th, at the start of the Aquino administration. But, within the same presidency, we had our worst ranking ever of 141st, in 2015 -- without any war on drugs. Trend-wise, we have been improving, actually, going up from 141 to 139 and then to 138.

From 2010 to 2017, at one point, in 2013, we actually ranked 129th in the GPI. But, this relatively better ranking, the assessors explained, was due in part to changes in the methodology in doing the GPI for that year. And thus, I consider this an outlier more than a reliable indicator of trend.

What is more revealing, in my opinion, is at the tailend of the Arroyo administration, in 2008 and 2009, the Philippines’ GPI rankings were 116th and 118th, respectively, which were significantly better than the 130th-141st band we have found ourselves in from 2010 to 2017.

The challenge now, in my opinion, is not how to dispute the 2017 ranking but how to learn from the successes and failures of previous governments, and to bring back the country’s GPI ranking to 116th or improve it. Calibrating the campaign against illegal drugs may be necessary, but this is not the only adjustment that should be made.

Analyzing the metrics will help. Rather than turning away from data, we should review the measures of the GPI and the indicators used to determine the rankings. And from there, we should take steps to minimize if not eliminate conflict and improve on social justice. The goal is actually ensuring long-term peace, and not just improving the GPI ranking. What will it take to hit 116th again -- or better?

Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.