Thursday, November 05, 2015

Rwanda Fiddles the Figures

The issue of good data is a recurring problem for global health and poverty alleviation. Reports regularly conclude with the need for better data to measure what is actually happening. The Rwandan government stands accused of manipulating its poverty data. A report this week by France 24 cites sources who charge that authorities made changes that showed poverty in the small central African country fell, when, it fact, it rose. Changes in the way poverty is measured is the source of disagreement.

The data released in September showed that the poverty rate in Rwanda fell by 6 percentage points between 2011 and 2014, to 39 percent. The Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey measures things like staple foods, caloric consumption, incomes and more to get a picture of the lives of Rwandans. The latest edition of the survey included changes to the minimum standards set for goods consumed by households. In addition to maize, cassava and sorghum quantities increased, while sweet potato, Irish potato and banana quantities fell.

According to France 24‘s sources, the changes were made by the Rwandan government after the survey was complete. They say Oxford Policy Management, the group that carried out the survey, disagreed with changes proposed by the government, but they were still made after the data was handed over to Rwanda. Those subtle changes distort the ability to compare 2011 against 2014 because the criteria for poverty changed, critics say. A representative for the Oxford Policy Management told France 24 that a confidentiality clause prevents it from releasing the data to the public or discussing the work.

“The government changed the methodology, especially the poverty line, before publishing the report,” Filip Reyntjens, professor of African Law and Politics at the University of Antwerp, told France 24. “So in the final report, instead of going up, poverty levels appear to have gone down by several percentage points. We redid the calculations using the initial methodology, and the results show that the poverty rate actually rose by 6 percent in 2013-14.”

Governments like the U.S. and U.K. hold up the country as an example for improving health and reducing poverty in Africa. But human rights groups are quick to point out that President Paul Kagame’s regime has suppressed critical news reporting, carried out destabilizing attacks in neighboring countries and supports assassination of opponents. “This entire story raises a serious problem as Rwanda is keen on showing strong ‘development’ measured, among other things, against reduction of poverty and inequality,” Reyntjens wrote. “Indeed, the international community accepts a trade-off between ‘development’ and repression. But if ‘development’ is not based on evidence, as appears to be the case now, what is left is just repression (for which the evidence is overwhelming).”

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