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The Problem with Statistics

March 12, 2016

GPJ-AfricaGLOBAL PRESS, HQ — Statistics are a major part of GPJ stories. Reporters and editors spend many hours scouring the Internet and perusing voluminous reports to find pieces of data to prove what sources tell us.

Data is a prime proof of accuracy and we also use it to show readers the scale of the issue in topic. Government websites, United Nations websites and reports from various think tanks can be reliable sources of data.

But even when data is from a reliable source, its accuracy can be questionable.

For example, consider poverty statistics for Kenya.

According to global organizations, 33 to 46 percent of Kenyans live below the poverty line. I wonder whether such statistics put the local context into consideration. I know many people in rural Kenya who don’t spend more than a dollar a day on most days and they are not poor.

When I was reporting on climate change in western Kenya a few years ago, I spoke to a pastoralist-cum-farmer who has about 100 acres of land and about 600 head of cattle. He grows maize, bananas and sweet potatoes on his land and his family of 12 subsists on the farm’s produce. His cows produce enough milk for his family. This man doesn’t spend even a dollar a day on most days. In the village where I grew up, most people are like this man. They grow what they eat and only spend money on things like salt and soap. Can we call them poor?

To get an accurate picture of issues including poverty in the developing world, we need to consider local context.