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On the economy, let us face the truth presented by data

By Irungu Houghton | Jan 30th 2021 | 3 min read
The National Treasury building [File, Standard]

It’s official, Kenya is in a recession. As economists debate the KNBS Quarter 3 GDP report, I am left wondering why do statistics provoke rather than settle arguments? We may be approaching a post-statistical mindset. The life of late former KNBS Director General Jotham Ngucuga Mwaniki tells us how dangerous this is for our society.

The KNBS 2020 Quarter 3 Report establishes that the economy is at weakest since 2008 and 2002. The political implications is clear. 2008 saw post-election violence claim the lives of over 1,000 people and destabilised 100,000s of others. 2002 saw the end of 24-year reign of the Moi/KANU in NARC’s decisive victory.

Manufacturing, trade, tourism, real estate, retail, food and education services are in a slump. The shilling is slipping against the currencies of our creditors. Two million people have lost their jobs to this little virus that has outlived its name. Two million is roughly the same number of voters the electoral commission declared, had voted for Uhuru Kenyatta over Raila Odinga in the now discredited August 2017 General Election.

Statistics have been around for over 500 years now. Fourteenth century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta and European experts used them to capture basic population trends. Since the first Bureau of Statistics was opened in Paris in 1800 we have come a long way.

The science of official statistics has grown to capture economic wealth, public behaviour and target public finance to meet basic rights to education, water and health. Opinion polling, the study of public perceptions, celebrates a century this year. Any modern state is incomplete without capacity to generate and interpret data.

While research tools have become more sophisticated and we are moving from formulae and graphs to maps and infographics, we must face the growing popular perception that facts are untrustworthy, insulting even and unsexy.

Grounding our policies and politics in statistics occurs to many as elitist, undemocratic and insensitive to people’s specific experiences and perceptions. “Say their name” police brutality or gender-based violence campaigns come from a legitimate argument that in numbers, we are losing the human experience. Human interest anecdotes, opinions and even our prejudices seem more powerful than verified data. More simply, ‘give me my emotions over facts about my least favourite political candidates, abortion, LGBTIQ+ rights and corruption’.

Information is profoundly political, but it also depends who is informing the nation. Tanzanian President Magufuli has openly declared he will only tolerate official government statistics. Anti-corruption blogger Charles Gichuki was arrested in August 2020 for the Anti-Corruption Tracker website while President Kenyatta was not, for sensationally claiming the country loses Sh2 billion daily.

Discriminatory state crackdowns on freedom of expression and state officers who stretch evidence, interpret data too loosely or lie to serve their state, hurt public confidence. Analyst William Davies explains this well when he states that most of the statistics that dominate political and policy debate are national in character.

Capitalism slices societies along several inequalities including class, gender, generational and geographical lines. Our experiences are not as neat. We live in the intersections of several identities. I am a 54 year-old grandfather, male heterosexual feminist and both nationally engaged and rooted in my neighbourhood. I also love digital technology as much as any twenty-year-old. Like many, I see little of my life in the sweeping national trends announced by governments.

Lastly, we now live in a world that accumulates personal data by default. Most of us are barely aware of what is being accumulated off our smartphones and used without our permission. Consequently, big data social network analysts currently have a field day mining our private lives. There is no office for data analytics and KNBS is not yet useful here.

The world has fundamentally changed since Jotham Ngucuga Mwaniki was the KNBS Director General in the nineties. What hasn’t changed is that statisticians require courage to tell the truth.

When under direct pressure from State House, Mwaniki refused to falsify reports to confirm Kamlesh Pattni and his associates had exported gold in the Goldenberg scandal. Half a billion shillings of public taxes and ten per cent of the Gross Domestic Product were stolen that year.

Alongside Central Bank economist David Munyekei, Mwaniki is one of Kenya’s still unrecognised heroes. We see and honour your courage Statistician Jotham Mwaniki. Rest in peace Shujaa.


-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity. [email protected]

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