Thursday February 7 2013

Numbers can lie, Mr Rwakakamba, and they rarely tell the whole story

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

I was pleasantly surprised to read my friend Morrison Rwakakamba’s response to this column last week. State functionaries, including ministers, often do not go beyond misspelt abusive text messages. So a counter argument, however flawed, is a welcome twitching of the toe, a sign that the patient, though wounded, lives.
If you ignore the hackneyed and predictable accusation of partisanship, he argued that numbers do not lie, throwing figures to show positive growth since 1986.
First of all numbers can lie; they are only as good as the veracity of the source. Even then, there’s no question Uganda is much better off today than it was in 1986.
However, numbers only make sense if put in context. For instance, he argued that life expectancy has risen from 43 years in 1986 to 50 currently. He did not indicate the source for the figures, as he was probably all over his library, but they seem off the mark.
World Bank data show life expectancy is actually higher, at 54. More intriguingly, they show that our life expectancy was 45 in 1965 and 51 in 1984.
This suggests that we added three years to our life expectancy every decade after independence (even with the Idi Amin mayhem) but have added three years in the three decades since 1984, perhaps due to HIV and malaria.
Apart from putting this into better context, it would support the view that investing in hospitals generally saves more lives than investing in fighter jets.
In addition Mr Rwakakamba falls into two usual traps, both to do with framing.
The first is that he follows the conventional political wisdom by benchmarking Uganda’s development to 1986 as if the country’s political-economic story started there.
By stripping himself of the partisanship he is so quick to assign, he would have seen that, for instance, while the economy has grown in the last three decades, we still produce a lot that we don’t consume and consume a lot that we do not produce. Worse, what we consume is more expensive than what we produce. This is not sustainable.
The second flaw is that, like many people, he frames the question along the lines of ‘how much growth have we seen since 1986?’
A more useful question, even if one insists on that time frame, is to ask, ‘how much growth should we have had in those 27 years?’ Such a question would look at the inputs, the environment, and crucially, at other countries and how fast (and fundamentally) they have grown in the same or similar periods. After 27 years are we on track to achieve what Singapore did in 35? Where has all the aid gone, and how come our external debt has risen four times since 1984 despite debt relief and higher domestic tax collections?
We need to stop the posturing – carrying around thick books we don’t read – and have an honest conversation about our country and our choices.
A few simple questions: Why is Kenya able to build a multi-lane Thika Highway when we can’t complete the Northern Bypass that is half the length and a third of the size?
Why was Malawi able to go from a food importer to an exporter in five years when all we can show of our NAADS flagship agricultural programme are “model farmers” parading borrowed goats?
Yes, we’ve increased power generation from 60MW to 812MW – drum rolls, please – but Ethiopia has over 2,500MW in the pipeline while rent seekers in Kampala delay the 600MW Karuma Dam over bribes and commissions.
These are not NRM or Opposition questions. These are Uganda questions.
Many of the answers to these questions lie in the absence of institutionalised allocation of resources, supervision, and renewal. The institution building necessary for this to happen is itself a question of leadership.
Three of the strategic sectors of the economy – oil, hydropower and agriculture – are currently on hold, awaiting a smoke signal from a State House consumed by regime survival.
Show me a statistic that shows how well we have done since 1986 and I will show you two that show how much better we could have done.
For how long shall we remain hostage to “since 1986”? How shall we explain to our children that countries like South Korea, which were as poor as us 50 years ago, are building ships while we eat chips?
We can use statistics like a signpost of how far we have to go, or as a destination on which to rest our bicycles. It is a long, long way to Singapore, Mr Rwakakamba, and you better get back on your bike and keep riding.