Is it a crime to question the accuracy of official data? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 14, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:24 PM, October 20, 2018

Is it a crime to question the accuracy of official data?

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his 2018 SDG progress report, while reporting major achievements in some areas, also emphasised in no uncertain terms the need for reliable data. “Without evidence of where we stand now we cannot confidently chart our path forward in realising the Sustainable Development Goals... (The) report also reflects on the challenges faced in the collection, processing, analysis and dissemination of reliable, timely, accessible and sufficiently disaggregated data, and calls for better evidence-based policymaking.”

Unfortunately, often governments do not like it when evidence comes to light showing that official data is inaccurate or totally false. People in power also do not want the public to question the veracity of the “success stories” or news flashes touting “rapid economic growth” achieved under its watch. And while in most instances it is the authoritarian states such as China and North Korea who attempt to silence the “fact-checkers,” we are now witnessing more and more open and democratic regimes using strong-arm tactics to bring any “data sceptics” to book.

This aversion to any form of challenges to official statistics has been met with state-orchestrated sanctions in almost every country in one form or another. Sometimes the truth-seeker is killed or kidnapped, at other times they are muzzled by the threat of punishment and banishment.

The most recent and blatant example of governmental overreach to tighten its grip on dissemination of information is now unfolding in the African nation of Tanzania. Its parliament passed an amendment to the Statistics Act of 2015 on September 10, giving the government broad authority to set standards for independent data collection, and making it a criminal offence to publicly question official government statistics. One amendment states: “A person shall not disseminate or otherwise communicate to the public any statistical information which is intended to invalidate, distort, or discredit official statistics.” The amendments also require people and institutions to seek the approval of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) prior to communicating their research findings to the public.

Opposition members in parliament in Tanzania are resisting these new amendments stating that they could target institutions and scholars releasing data that isn't in favour of the government. Independent scholars and academics also argue that the new laws will curtail both the collection of crucial data and the ability to fact-check and hold official sources accountable.

What propelled the apparently democratically elected leader of Tanzania, in power since 2015, to resort to such draconian measures to suppress truth-seekers? The Wall Street Journal in a report titled “Tanzania's President Got Off to a Strong Start, Then Turned into a Strongman” sounded an alarm. It said that President John Magufuli “nicknamed 'the Bulldozer' is cracking down on opponents and spooking foreign investors, shifting one of Africa's more stable democracies onto an authoritarian path.”

Many of his policy measures also indicate a lack of respect for women and ignorance of the facts of economic conditions in Tanzania. A few days ago, Mr Magufuli urged women to stop taking birth control pills, saying the country needs more people. Unfortunately, his reasoning is contradicted by two key facts on poverty and family size in Tanzania. It has a population of around 53 million people, with 49 percent of them living on less than USD 2 a day. On average, a woman in Tanzania has more than five children, one of the highest rates in the world.

Tanzania undertook this perilous journey to ban any form of fact-checking to choke off the skepticism voiced by the media regarding the official economic and developmental statistics published by the state-run bureau NBS. In 2017, the World Bank cut its forecast for Tanzania's full-year GDP growth in November to 6.6 percent versus the government's revised growth target of 7.0 percent.

Data quality in Tanzania is poor. Many news sources have in the past pointed out that evidence-based research—that could inform how national policies are formulated in African countries—is lacking. Fortunately, in Tanzania, like many other countries, independent actors fill this gap by providing data—for example, on flood-prone areas to avoid disasters or by documenting citizens' needs, something that isn't captured in official government statistics. In a rebuke to the government, analyst Abdi Latif Dahir calls the measures included in the amendment an “Orwellian move,” referring to George Orwell's dire predictions in his book 1984.

Ironically, the World Bank recently agreed to provide Tanzania with a USD 50 million loan to support the government's statistical endeavours. In the aftermath of new acts, the Bank announced on October 1 that it is concerned about restrictions that the government has placed on fact-checking and freedom of speech and announced that it is in “discussions with the government of Tanzania on whether further support to building sustainable statistical systems is appropriate at this time.” The Bank statement goes on to say that the restrictions “could have serious impacts on the generation and use of official and non-official statistics, which are a vital foundation for the country's development.”

The international agency further commented that the law is “out of line with international standards such as the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and the African Charter on Statistics.”

Since I singled out China in my opener, I would be remiss if I don't also mention that leaders of that country, which now has the world's second largest economy, have not only in the past frowned upon any fact-based reporting on politics, civil society and sensitive historical events, but has also increasingly been striving to keep negative news about the economy under wraps.

Recently, stories surfaced that China has in the past been cooking data on GDP and investment growth. On September 28 this year, the New York Times reported that the government sent a directive to journalists in China in early October identifying six economic topics that would be “managed” by the government. The list of topics includes: (i) Worse-than-expected data that could show the economy is slowing; (ii) Local government debt risks; (iii) The impact of the trade war with the United States; (iv) Signs of declining consumer confidence; (v) The risks of stagflation, or rising prices coupled with slowing economic growth; and (vi) “Hot-button issues to show the difficulties of people's lives.”

The role of independent or “third-party” sources of accurate and reliable data on GDP, market conditions in a country, and the economic wellbeing of the masses is critical. An economy that has no independent source of data can be compared to an aircraft flying without its airspeed sensors. The analogy was drawn by Aidan Eyakuze, the executive director of Twaweza, a not-for-profit research organisation in Tanzania, in his critique of the government's actions. He drew a parallel to an Air France jetliner that crashed in 2009 because the aircraft's airspeed sensors failed. “Without the air speed reading, the computer systems failed and the pilots, flying literally data blind, were unable to regain control of the aircraft,” he wrote on Oxfamblogs.org.


Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist, and Senior Research Fellow at the International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA. His new book Economic Crosscurrents will be published later this year.


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