Using statistics to convert black to white
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." - Mark Twain (1835-1910)
As Dominicans prepare for another general election the performance of the Dominica Labour Party government has come into sharp focus. Specifically, critics are fixated on the economy, jobs, poverty and good governance. While Prime Minister Skerrit boasts that no other government in our history would have done as well as his, given the precarious state of the global economy, opposition politicians in an adaptation of Mark Twain's statement, are accusing Mr. Skerrit of engaging in "lies, damned lies and (abuse of) statistics."
In fact since the Government has been so careless in the use of statistics to deliberately give the impression to the electorate that the economy is brighter than it actually is, many Dominicans have become aware that statistics can be used to paint any picture that anyone wants. But without accurate statistics, and honest interpretation of figures, planning becomes a frustrating exercise and the electorate finds it impossibleto judge the performance of their government
That point was made rather eloquently by Dr. Keith C. Mitchell, the Prime Minister of Grenada at the Second High Level Advocacy Forum on Statistics on Monday, May 26th, 2014 at the Radisson Grenada Grand Beach Resort.
In his keynote address, Dr. Mitchell argued that "statistics ought to be seen as the voice of our people. Development is about empowering our citizens, whether it is through education and skills development or health care. It is also through statistics that we inform about their reality and results of actions taken by the people or by government."
Dr. Mitchell added: "Statistics is not only important for policy-makers but also for providing information to the citizens of our region. Our citizens require appropriate statistics to hold their governments and all serious stakeholders, accountable.
"Therefore, the role of statistics in development is not only for our governments to monitor, but also to drive the development outcomes that statistics measure through the voices of the people of our region.
" We are all faced with tremendous and quite similar challenges in our respective countries: low and slow economic growth, high rates of unemployment, high national debt, fiscal imbalances, relatively high levels of poverty and unemployment, high import bill—just to name a few. It is therefore difficult to address these challenges effectively if we cannot measure their magnitudes accurately".
Our own prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, would undoubtedly agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Mitchell and argue further that he's been giving the electorate accurate and relevant information. But many persons would disagree and here's why.
In many of his speeches over the past few years Prime Minister Skerrit has claimed that there has been increases in economic activity and growth in the Dominican economy, despite the global crisis. He stated in one of these addresses that the last official living-conditions survey carried out in 2002 and published in 2003, produced poverty levels of 39 percent at the individual level and 29 percent at the household level. He added that the unemployment level is currently at about 11 percent compared with over 20 percent in 2002, and the number of poor persons and households has been reduced to at least 26 percent and19 percent respectively.
But all documents available on the internet and the official government documents we have perused, contradict the Prime Minister's statistics. These documents state that 39 percent of Dominica are still below the poverty line; about 50 percent of residents of the Carib Territory live in extreme poverty; more than 25 percent of the labour force is unemployed; nearly 80 percent of the population between the ages of 15 and 34 cannot find a permanent job and therefore migrate and the income of the majority of banana farmers have disappeared because the industry has virtually collapsed.
Nevertheless, the Skerrit-led Labour Party administration is not the only government which has attempted to use statistics to bolster its position or to justify its actions. Remember that the Bush administration of the United States of America was accused of deliberately misinterpreting intelligence reports about Iraq's ownership of weapons of mass destruction and its so-called association to Al-Qaeda to invade Iraq and topple President Saddam Hussein. According to Brown University, the cost of that abuse of statistics (or the war, if you prefer) was US$2.2 trillion and more than 190,000 lives. Although this may be an extreme example of a government's misuse of statistics but you get the point: governments will lie to achieve their objectives.
But we did not expect our government to make such deliberate in-your-face attempts at clouding the economic realities when almost every citizen, party and non-party supporters alike, experience the problems of a struggling economy every day. They know that "things are bad."
But instead our government boasts that the economy was galloping at a rate of growth of three percent. This strengthens the contention that Dominicans are easily satisfied with mediocrity in all aspects of life. For example, in 2004 Mexico trashed Dominica's national football team 18 goals to zero in a series of two matches but our sports officials found a way to justify that pathetic performance by claiming it was indeed progress to have the national team play in a large stadium.
The point is if we are not honest about our performance we will not improve. A three percent growth of the economy is definitely not an achievement to boast about especially when one considers that the economy has woefully underperformed for more than a decade.
Civil society must therefore make efforts at providing the Dominican electorate with sound, intelligent and sober discussions on our economic options. The impact that the severe financial and economic crisis will have on Dominica is too serious to be left to politicians. To be absolutely candid, on the eve of an election we do not expect either the government or the opposition to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, about the state of the economy.