Saturday November 11 2017

Of court jesters and the power of numbers

Samuel Sejjaaka, court, jesters

Samuel Sejjaaka 

By Samuel Sejjaaka

Maybe you have heard of Charles Handy. If you have not it does not matter much. Charles Handy is an Irish author and philosopher who once came calling. In his lecture about leadership, he introduced to us the idea of the court jester.
Jesters, Handy argued, have a very important role to play in the courts of kings and queens. They entertain the monarch as it were, telling jokes to keep him or her happy and using satire to ridicule those who fall out of favour. Jesters are also critical in parlaying bad news to the monarch. Kings have been known to behead those who convey bad news so the court jester is the perfect vessel to convey bad news couched in an acceptable language.

Maybe you have also heard of the Ghanaian fable (sic) of Anansi. It is claimed that Anansi, a clever wit had a wager with some villagers to get the king to undress. By dint of praise and cunning, it is claimed Anansi got the king to disrobe, by offering him a ‘magic robe’ that only clever men could see. After the king had undressed, Anansi turned to the audience and, with a glint in his eye said, ‘behold, the emperor’s new clothes!’
Which brings me squarely to the power of numbers. Benjamin Disraeli is quoted as saying that “There are three types of lies - lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Again don’t worry if you don’t know Disraeli. He was a writer (and two-time British prime minister) who spent a lot of his time climbing ‘the greasy pole’ (politics) at the expense of a sterling literary career.

Modern day court jesters have mastered the art of humouring the king and his court using statistics. Take for example the literature that keeps on popping up about Kenya and Uganda. A while ago I read that Kenya had more people living below the poverty line than Uganda. I did not take the statistics seriously until someone ascribed it to the World Bank. Again I would not have taken this seriously until more comparisons of Kenya and Uganda were drawn and ascribed to the great World Bank.
The presenter argued that the rate of growth of gross domestic product and per capita income over the last 25 years was the same for Kenya and Uganda. According to this presenter, Uganda beat Kenya hands down in terms of growth of export earnings and the development of infrastructure like roads and dams. In respect of healthcare outcomes over the last 25 years (reduced child, infant, and maternal mortality, access to clean water, increased life expectancy, and improvement in control of malaria), Uganda was ahead in the game.

Of course the good fellow (without knowing) was talking rates rather than actual outcomes. This is where my reference to the power of numbers becomes important. Let us take two numbers and ascribe them to Uganda (0.99) and Kenya (1.01).
You will agree that these numbers are very close, right? What happens when you apply the same exponential factor to them (say 365)? Uganda’s number (0.99) will thus increase in the order of 0.99365 = 0.03 while Kenya’s number (1.01) will increase in the order of 1.01365 = 37.8! That is the power of numbers for you. Now apply the 25 years our presenter was talking about and you appreciate the mischief.

You cannot convey that kind of information to a king, unless of course you are an experienced court jester. You cannot say that the King’s ‘nani’ is more wrinkled than the neighbour’s unless of course you can explain how it came to be (pun intended). You must assure the king that he is a lion and the neighbour is just a cub! As jester-in-chief, there must be something in it for you to motivate you to misuse numbers. That ‘something’ may have nothing to do with giving proper advice.

Prof Sejjaaka is country team leader at Abacus Business School. @samuelsejjaaka