The trouble with data: Did poverty in Rwanda go up or down?

Kigali, Rwanda. (Credit: oledoe/flickr)

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 Rwandan government strongly denies the report.

“The claims made about the integrity of Rwanda’s official development statistics by anonymous sources in a France 24 article of 2 November 2015 are fundamentally wrong,” said Yussuf Murangwa, head of statistics for the Rwandan government, in an official response to the report. “There have been enormous structural changes to production and consumption patterns in the past fifteen years, such as the introduction of maize as a staple crop. A model that failed to take account of these changes would yield distorted results.”

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.

As Murangwa indicated, 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.

“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.”

Reyntjens says he was contacted by an anonymous source involved in the survey. That person told him that the data were changed. Having access to the disputed data would help clear up the problem, but that is not possible at the moment. 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. Despite the concerns, Rwanda is steadfast that its report remains true.

“Rwanda and its development partners have invested heavily in reliable statistical capacity, abiding by international standards. Scrutiny of our work is welcome, and indeed beneficial. Ultimately the facts speak for themselves,” Murangwa’s statement concluded.

Rwanda is a controversial country in development circles. 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.

In a commentary about the episode in the African Arguments blog, Reyntjens argues that this problem is among the trade-offs of working with authoritarian regimes.

“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).”

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. Even people like Melinda Gates are now talking about the importance of data. But, as the episode shows, having data does not solve all problems. It is still a matter of how it is used. Whether or not Rwanda manipulated its poverty data, the debate exposes the problem of how data is used.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.