Damn Statistics: Top Five False Figures That Mean We Get The World Wrong

  • Share
  • Read Later

News that last week’s shocking claim that 48 women are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is actually a shocking piece of statistical methodology makes me wonder what other parts of our world view are based on erroneous stats. Over the years, I’ve collected a few choice examples of my own but I’d be delighted to hear of any more. Please feel free to add any of your own in the comment box below.

There is a serious point to this exercise. Many of the figures I cite below have formed the false foundation on which businesses and governments have based strategy and policy. One, the figure for Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa, contributed to a climate of xenophobia that costs scores of lives. Many seem wilfully false, created out of, say, a journalist’s desire to create a sensation, a government’s need to make a political point or an aid agency’s wish for more funds. Here’s my top five falsehoods-in-figures:

1. The size of India’s middle class is 300 million people. No, it isn’t. The size of India’s middle class was 50 million in 2005, according to this report by McKinsey, and won’t be quite 250 million by 2015. And yet the 300 million figure has been pervasive  for years, cited by everyone from the UN to multinationals to the US President: I was in New Delhi in 2005 when George W. Bush hailed the new Indian middle class of 300 million people. India will get its middle class of 300 million one day. But basing foreign or commercial policy on that figure today is premature, and ignores the reality that even by 2015, a full 78% of Indians will earn incomes below even McKinsey’s generous definition of middle class (incomes of $4,376 or less a year).

2. The 1998-2002 war in the DRC cost 5.4 million lives, more than any conflict since World War II. No, it didn’t. It’s undeniable that the chaos of war makes collecting statistics particularly difficult. But it doesn’t help clarify the situation if, as the International Rescue Committee did in 2008, you take a sample from the most war-torn area of the country and extrapolate it for the whole country, nor if you attribute to war deaths that are in reality from malnutrition and diseases such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia. There is, no doubt, a strong, indirect link between those deaths and war, even if the fighting had largely ended by 2002 and you are collecting figures for six years after that. But there is an even stronger and more direct link between these deaths and the DRC’s extremely poor health system. Deaths directly resulting from the fighting number in the tens of thousands. The IRC later said a more accurate toll was spread of between 3 million and 7.6 million. Other estimates put the total number of dead from conflict and the decline in living conditions that resulted at 1-2 million. All these figures describe a catastrophe. But if you base decisions on quantities of aid and peacekeepers on bad figures, you’ll inevitably get bad results.

3. There are 3 million Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa. No, there aren’t. This figure is used almost universally by journalists and governments to describe the extent of the economic collapse in Zimbabwe and its implications for Zimbabwe’s neighbors. It was in wide use during the largely anti-Zimbabwean riots in 2008 in which more than 60 people died across South Africa. Tragic, then, that it’s not true. Puzzled by the stat’s appearance, the Southern African Migration Project, a research and advisory body which specializes in tracking refugees, carried out two investigations: into the true figure, which it found to be 800,000 to 1 million, and the origin of the number of 3 million, which it found to be a South African journalist.

4. The recent financial crisis will push up to 100 million people in developing countries into absolute poverty. This was a prediction, rather than a statement of fact, one that was endorsed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN and almost every aid agency in the world. The figure was used as a rallying cry to raise funds to alleviate the wave of poverty said to be about to sweep the poor world – something that was deemed particularly unfair, since it was the rich world that caused the crisis. The effects would be particularly severe in Africa, the experts agreed, where former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn foresaw a threat of “civil unrest, perhaps even war.” It didn’t happen. Only South Africa, Africa’s biggest economy, went briefly into recession. The other 47 countries in Africa escaped the worst of the crisis, and even managed to grow by an average 2% in 2009, returning to 5% GDP growth in 2010 and a predicted 5.6% this year. Least affected, in fact, were the poorest of the poor: Africa’s 29 low income countries saw their economies grow by a healthy 4.5% in 2009. Still, the warnings worked. Global aid rose 6.8% to $119.6 billion in 2009. In 2010, when the US and Britain ring-fenced foreign aid even as they trimmed and slashed spending in almost every other area, it increased again, by another 5% to $126 billion.

5. Only one in 10 Americans possess a passport. This is a figure routinely touted as evidence of US insulation from and ignorance of the world – which in turns explains perceived foreign policy blunders in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the Middle East, Asia and Africa. That may be a real phenomenon, or it may not. But even if it is, it isn’t down to lack of travel. At the last count, 114,460,000 Americans – 37% – had passports. While that figure is still not large – the comparative figure in the UK is 71% – it is rising: the numbers of US citizens applying for passports doubled in the last decade, the era in which the US is said to have committed most of its overseas mistakes. And Americans actually come third in the world behind Britons and Germans for the most international flight departures in a year. Meanwhile, only 1.5% of Chinese have passports.