The true nature of Statistics in Development

Here, Gavin Shepherd provides an analysis of the statistics that underpin the very notion of what constitutes as ‘development’.

Development is a good thing. The idea that people around the world should have access to the same basic standards of living is not a new idea, and is indeed a noble one. People wanting a ‘better life’ is a concept that spans borders, culture and any number of other labels. Development has become common knowledge in so far as everyone believes it needs to happen. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but questions have to be asked. It is not the why but the how that should be the focus.

The UK, in the year 2015, spent approximately £12,239 million in Overseas Development Aid (ODA), or a ODA: GNI ratio of 0.71%. Great. Governments love large budgets. It means they are doing something, right? However, for all the numbers flashed around there are some hard facts. An estimated 9.6% of the global population live in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty being classified by the World Bank as earning below US$1.90 per day. On the face of it, this can be seen as a victory. The number of people living in extreme poverty is falling. This statement, however, is completely arbitrary. Why is US$1.90 the golden figure. One should factor in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), currency values and any number of other statistics. Development and data have become synonymous with each other.

Simon Cunningham / Creative Commons License

Simon Cunningham / Creative Commons License

Development has become an exercise in budgetary excess or constraint. The message is drowned out in a sea of currency exchange. Governments follow the maxim that inertia is the worst of evils. If one is not acting, then one is not dealing with issues. ‘If it aint broke legislate anyway’. This is not to say that conventional wisdom on development is working. But infuriatingly it is also not to say that it is not working. The fact of the matter is that it will take time, measured in decades, rather than merely years, to be able to fully assess the impact of the development policies of today. This statement is at the heart of the issue. Governments don’t have decades with which to be judged by. A four or five year, as a broad generalisation, election cycle does not lend itself to long term introspection.

Taking the UK as an example; we see policy being made with the rejoinder that the full consequences may not be fully realised before the end of the governmental term- and of course there is always the chance of a new government changing the whole playing field. This scenario is why statistics have become the end game of development. It is infinitely easier to measure development in terms of statistics as it is easier to quantify the so called results. This leads on to the classification of developed and developing countries, but one amongst a myriad of other classifications.

Fatimeh Nadimi / Creative Commons License

Fatimeh Nadimi / Creative Commons License

This is not to say that statistics do not have their place. They are fundamental to any discussion development, However, statistics are only as solid as the foundation upon which they are placed. Take GDP (gross domestic product) versus the Gini coefficient. GDP are oft quoted as the signifying development, or a lack thereof as the case may be. But, can we say that a country has developed if there is vast inequality amongst its population- which would entail a high Gini coefficient?

Development is a blanket term for many different cooperative and competitive ideas and strategies. Whichever strategy one chooses will determine evidence and outcome. The danger comes when the emphasis is on supporting an agenda rather than development actually occurring. We should always remember the distinction between writing a cheque and taking responsibility.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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