Making sense of development statistics

Published: Sunday | November 14, 2010 Comments 0

Martin Henry, Contributor

Students of the University of the West Indies (UWI) of my generation, which is quite some time ago, grew up on a little book, How To Lie With Statistics. But let me pause right here, before pursuing "lying" with statistics any further, to pay tribute to that quintessential UWI man, Professor Barry Chevannes, professor of cultural anthropology, who was not unduly worshipful of statistical analysis which has done so much to derail the social sciences as ways of understanding human society and human action. Barry understood the power of narrative and of art in both scholarship and life, which scholarship seeks to understand.

From his breadth of output, I am most interested in his work, both scholarly and activist, on violence, the greatest scourge on Jamaican society, and his work on men. Chevannes, while frankly acknowledging the problems men faced and men caused, defended, with empirical evidence, the Jamaican male against the pervasive theories of male marginalisation and the 'wutliss' man.

Actually, I knew Pauletta, Barry's wife, earlier and better, as we taught together at Charlie Smith High School in Arnett Gardens in and around the dark days of the 1980 general election. Pauletta worked in education with missionary zeal under difficult circumstances, as a matter of national service. At the time, I was more interested in earning an income while completing 'free education' university. I studied mornings and one full day, and taught four afternoons in that shift school located in what the residents themselves called 'Jungle'.

My condolences to the family - and that 'family' is vast if it includes all whose life Barry's touched with the kind of joyfulness present in his music.

As we go back to 'lying' - or explaining - with statistics, one of the basic lessons of Statistics 101 is having a common base number for comparing things. Base 100 is by far the most popular, hence the widespread use of percentages [from the Latin for per 100]. Another core lesson is having sufficient data points for properly figuring out trends and patterns. I raise these points because too many media practitioners break these basic rules in reporting, and end up 'lying' with statistics.

Misleading report

Take this lead from a news report on Jamaica's 2010 ranking on the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) which was published in the business section (of all places) of a newspaper: "Jamaica jumped 20 positions to rank 80 worldwide [in] the Human Development Report 2010 published by the United Nations (UN) allowing the island to break from medium to high human development status. Its [sic] the best result in 30 years for the country struggling with crime the report ... indicated".

The story does say later on that "the improvement this year was not perfectly comparable with the 2009 report ... " but then did nothing to provide a common base for year-to-year comparison. Instead, Jamaica's raw rankings were given for a number of years on a shifting base of the number of countries reported on. When those rank numbers are adjusted to a common base [base 100 is fine] a very different and more accurate picture emerges:

In 2010, 80/169 is equivalent to 47/100.

For 2009, 100/182 is equivalent to 55/100, which is, in fact, a better ranking than this year's.

But what is the trend? Just using the data in the story itself:

For the period 2007-2008, 101/177 is equivalent to 57/100.

The 1990 ranking of 87/130 is equivalent to 66/100.

What we are seeing here, contrary to the triumphant announcement of Jamaica jumping in development, is a progressive comparative decline when the base for comparison, the number of countries surveyed is fixed and not allowed to float. Indeed, the hard scores on the HDI, as opposed to the relative rankings, show exactly this. Late in the news story we are finally told that the country has, in fact, experienced a drop in its HDI score, 2010 over 2009, from 0.766 in 2009 to 0.688 in 2010, with 1.0 being the maximum and perfect score. This is a significant 10 per cent drop. This is what matters. This is the real news.

Developmentally, Jamaica has been bouncing around fairly lightly in the midst of the nations on the HDI of the UNDP, and on every other score card. In both rank and absolute HDI score we are far from being any kind of disaster case. And we have quite a bit to be proud of. Jamaica has first-world life expectancy on a fraction of their per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and expenditure on health care. We have first-world levels of immunisation. We are scoring highly on communication access and on gender development, which is code for the status of women vis--vis men in the society.

Where we are falling down badly is on economic growth, measured as an increase in per capita GDP, on economic equity measured by income distribution, which is one of the most inequitable in the world, on public safety where the murder rate is the most telling index. And we are not doing as well as most of our Caribbean neighbours on literacy, although massive strides have been made in recent years in access to secondary and tertiary education.

NONSENSE STATS

Which takes us right into some other statistical 'lies': A great deal of the economic statistics of Jamaica is nonsense stats. They are derived from counting only a fraction of the total economy. There is a roaring informal economy, informal precisely because it is unregulated and unmeasured, whose size is anybody's guess and which makes nonsense of our entire set of GDP data.

Like I am totally tickled by the permanent panic over the foreign exchange - and economic consequences of our trade deficit. How the economy fails to implode with an everlasting trade deficit where we import more than we export using scarce foreign exchange is a Sherlock Holmes mystery, unless we are willing to concede to common sense that informal foreign-exchange earnings, i.e. all that the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) cannot get to count, including the returns on the ganja trade, must be paying for a great deal of imports.

Another news story, without the benefit of Statistics 101, tells us from World Bank data that Jamaica currently ranks fifth highest for remittances in Latin America and the Caribbean. This conclusion appears to be derived from raw numbers of dollars remitted rather than a per capita [base 1] comparison.

The World Bank's Migration and Remittances Factbook, 2011, offers some other bits of data of large significance: Remittances are the number one source of foreign exchange income. Quite a bit comes in and goes back out through non-formal channels, which confound the BOJ count and the trade balance of payments calculations, as I was saying.

Graduates migrate

According to the World Bank, 85.1 per cent of tertiary graduates migrate. So the news report concludes, if not the Bank itself, that "high brain drain bolsters strong remittances to Jamaica". I would love to know how the World Bank arrived at its migration figure for tertiary graduates.

While I am waiting, it seems pretty obvious that the Government of Jamaica, which is spending close to 15 per cent of the national budget on education, and a disproportionate chunk of that on tertiary education, is training primarily for the export market.

A sensible use of statistics is to use the numbers to drive public policy. Government must proceed to do the hard return on investment analysis for education, and decide if the current training for export in return for remittances is the best way to proceed in the national interest.

But right now, we don't even know how many people there are in the country. The Statistical Institute is cranking up for a new census in which "everyone counts". The Institute will defend to the death, the accuracy of its methodology and data, but it seems to me, a mere layman, that the large number of informal settlements and their impenetrability for everything from regularising use of the utilities and crime fighting, to counting heads, will have a large impact on the accuracy of the data.

Social and economic statistics depend for their accuracy, on an orderly, formalised society, and Jamaica is not one.

Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Feedback may be sent to medhen@gmail.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.


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