Over the course of this past week, a seemingly coordinated onslaught on Rwanda by western media and academics unfolded. It came in form of a painstaking effort to cast doubt on the accuracy of data that shows Rwanda’s progress on poverty reduction and economic growth.
This coordinated hitjob started on 3rd August with an article in the America magazine, The Atlantic that claimed that China’s Investments in Rwanda were trapping the country into an insurmountable debt burden. Among many falsehoods in the article, the author, Stephen Paduano asserted that 70% of Rwanda’s roads were ‘financed and built by the Chinese.’ Mr Paduano included a link as a source of his assertions, to a CNN story that covered China’s President Xi JinPing visit to Kigali in June 2018. In that story, CNN, without citing its sources, claims that “China is by far Rwanda’s largest trading partner and contractor — with 70% of roads in the country built by Chinese companies.” Despite the ludicrousness of this assertion, you can see that Mr. Paduano added a small, but important detail to his claim. By adding the word ‘financed’ (which is not in the CNN story he cites) he is attempting to amplify his claims of Rwanda’s heavy indebtedness. Even if CNN’s claim was credible, adding the word ‘financed’ completely changes the meaning. Where as saying the roads were just ‘built’ by Chinese could mean the Chinese are contracted to build them (a common practice across Africa and else where), Mr Paduano mischievously wanted to assert that not only have these Chinese companies built the said roads, but have also provided the money to do so. Therefore to advance his preconceived notions, Mr Paduano added fake news to fake news. Incredible!
The Rwanda Ministry of Finance released a statement debunking most of Mr Paduano’s claims, including his assertions that Rwanda was understating its Debt to GDP ratio, one of the indicators of a country’s debt sustainability, the howler of China ‘financing and building’ 70% of Rwanda’s roads, and other false assertions. When Rwandans on Twitter cornered Mr Paduano and tasked him to explain why he published fake news to advance an agenda, he instead retreated to casting more aspersions on Rwanda by citing human rights watch, democracy, blah blah.
Mr Paduano’s and his ilk’s obsession with Rwanda raises curious questions. Paduano for example begins his article in The Atlantic by writing about Chinese ‘gifts’ of office buildings, and many Chinese construction companies, Chinese debt, etc to Rwanda. But China has also gifted Uganda with double a office complex that houses the Prime Ministers and President’s offices. Chances are that you have not heard about that. China has built The African Union offices. Chinese construction companies are winning contracts in Europe and America as well. Using Rwanda as an example of the assumed Chinese Red Menace sweeping over Africa, and putting the country in the headline for his piece, Mr. Paduano shows his prejudices against the country even before he puts pen to paper.
Mr. Paduano penned another anti-Rwanda screed for The Economist on August 15th , a piece that came at the heels of a Financial Times story questioning the veracity of Rwanda’s poverty statistics (more on this later). Mr Paduano piles onto the Financial Times accusations asserting that Rwanda’s poverty reduction numbers are fake. In this piece’s very first paragraph, Mr Paduano gives himself away when he refers to a “genocide in 1994 when perhaps 500,000 people…were killed,” in effect joining rabid genocide denier and conspiracy theorist, Filip Reyntjens of the University of Antwerp in casting aspersions on Rwandans by doubting the scale of one of the worst ethnic-based atrocities in world history. Why, he could simply have got accurate information and cited the right figures and true nature of this crime against humanity. He chose not to!
In the Economist Piece, Paduano also suggests that Rwanda’s rapid GDP growth of 8% a year has been exaggerated. Now, this is beyond absurd. The World Bank has been curating GDP data and other development indicators for Rwanda and other countries since at least 1965. Surely this must be the conspiracy of the ages if international institutions like the World Bank, IMF, The OECD, and other international agencies collude with Rwanda all time, to lie about its statistics.
The next episode in the effort by western media and academic to sow doubt on Rwanda’s economic progress came in form of a Financial Times story on August 13. This one questioned Rwanda’s poverty figures and repeated many of the claims liberal academics in western universities as well as newspapers have made regarding Rwanda’s economic and political record for many years.
The FT article actually built onto a series of articles by anonymous bloggers that were published on the website of an obscure publication called Review of African Political Economy. This journal’s articles date as far back as May 2017. These articles claim that Rwanda, in cahoots with donors fudge development performance statistics to depict a picture of the country that is rosier than the reality.
Of particular contention in all the missives is the conclusion by the Rwandan National Institute of Statistics in its Household Survey Report of 2015 that poverty had declined to 39% from 45% in the preceding three-year period. The financial Times story claimed that they initiated an independent study of the microdata from this survey and found that Rwanda had overstated a drop in its poverty figures.
From 2017 when these claims first came out, The World Bank firmly responded by insisting that Rwanda’s poverty statistics are legit, but this did not satisfy the naysayers.
In an unprecedented act, the Bank even commissioned an investigation whereby two of its experts examined Rwanda’s poverty data and found it legitimate. In an extensive paper titled “Revisiting the Poverty Trend in Rwanda: 2010/11 to 2013/14,” published in 2018, the Bank’s experts Freeha Fatima and Nobuo Yashida concluded that “After adjusting for spatial and temporal price differences, the poverty rate based on the international poverty line of $1.90 per day per capita shows that there was a reduction in poverty between 2010/11 and 2013/14.”
In April this year, when the conspiracy theories began swirling again, the bank once again issued a factsheet, a kind of FAQ affirming that “there is no evidence that NISR manipulated poverty estimates.”
Following The Financial Times story last week, yet again the World Bank issued a statement in which it reaffirmed its trust in Rwanda’s poverty figures, stating, rightly, that “…Differences over methodologies for poverty estimation are common in all countries, including developed ones, given the complexity of the subject matter” that poverty is.
NISR, whose director Mr Yusuf Murangwa had provided on-the-record answers to Financial Times journalists for which they ran only cherry-picked excerpts, also provided a comprehensive response to the allegation, defending its work.
President Kagame himself rightly dismissed these allegations as just another attempt at discrediting Rwanda’s progress.
None of these seem to satisfy these academics and journalists, however.
Isn’t it ironic though, that western neoliberal academics and their media enablers take Indictments against Rwanda and other African countries from international organisations like Human Rights Watch and the International Criminal Court as gospel truths and rely on western based international groups but this time round don’t want to listen to what the World Bank, hitherto their favourite international development institution, at its word?
The Complexity of poverty statistics
Like I have written before, Surveys, by their very nature, are complicated business. When studying a subject as multi-dimensionally complicated as poverty, surveys become even more complicated.
- First off, they are very expensive to conduct.
- Secondly, there is a long time lag between one survey and the next (up to 3-5 years in some cases).
- Thirdly, they sample representative populations that designers of the survey tools believe could provide the best educated guess of what is happening to the population.
Hence while surveys provide vital national-level information and statistics, they are not suitable for providing all the local-level micro-information required for local-level decision-making. Most information from household surveys, even in countries that have robust statistical systems– cannot be usefully disaggregated below the subnational level, and so cannot be relied on by decentralised government departments for effectively planning and service delivery.
As a policy maker like the government of Rwanda therefore, you have to find new and creative approaches to keep tabs on what is going on during periods when surveys are not being conducted, and also because you cannot rely on surveys alone to give you the detailed information you need about people in poverty. The solution is to invest in alternative data sources such as Administrative data (collected by non-statistics agencies like Ministries and departments of government), NGOs and thinktanks data, community-based data collection and civil registration and vital statistics, etc. Some countries in Europe have even stopped conducting some surveys altogether because they have strong alternative data sources in form of administrative data systems, registers, remote sensing, , satellite data and other forms of ‘big data.’
When NISR director Mr Yusuf Murangwa therefore told the Financial Times that “ Progress was further corroborated, by the positive trend in other areas including financial inclusion, the expansion of tax receipts and the results of the country’s demographic and health surveys,” he was absolutely right. You have to monitor trends in other development indicators and use them to establish a causal-comparative relationship those changes might have made on poverty.
These methodological variances and challenges are universally accepted within the real of statistical academic scholarship. I wonder why Rwanda’s critics have to assume these data limitations shouldn’t apply to Rwanda, and instead go for the worst assumptions on Rwanda’s intentions. This is clearly intentional prejudice against Rwanda.
On Rwanda’s statistics:
Data and methodology
Data used to compute poverty estimates is normally collected as a small sample aimed at giving precise national and regional estimates. In addition to small sample sizes, Rwanda’s critics in the articles cited above take no effort to acknowledge the problems that are normally faced during data collection.
Rwanda’s NISR is ranked one of the most transparent in Africa by the Open Data Watch’s Open Data Inventory . As a matter of fact the reason Financial Times journalists gained access to the microdata (This is raw data from households which may, or may not be made public after a process known as ‘data anonymisation’ in which personal identifiers of survey respondents are removed to protect their privacy) is because NISR made it publicly available. If Rwanda wanted to hide the data to evade scrutiny, why would NISR make this data available? Many opaque countries do not make these data public.
NISR’s own survey technical reports acknowledge the challenges encountered during the survey, including:
- Measurement of own consumption
- Problems in reporting agricultural activities
- Reporting of current value of assets and other durable goods.
A genuine critique wouldn’t have ignored this but estimated the impact of these challenges and taken them into account before provocatively claiming that Rwanda’s NISR intentionally fudged the numbers. FT does no statistical ranges for its estimates nor p values to show how significant their claims stand compared with the official statistics.
The data being used to compare the 2 periods under contention was cross-sectional and not panel. Survey data analysis is supposed to follow the sampling plan/design and the periods that data relates to. To effectively compare the 2 periods requires using panel datasets, that are available from NISR, and if not, normalise the estimates from the 2 surveys.
To normalise especially the poverty lines requires using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), for each of the specific items/goods in the basket. Using overall CPI as a measure of price movement for goods very important to the poor is not a good move. The best is to identify price movements for the same basket of goods, taking into account the weights for the different items, which forms the “poor-price index”.
The other approach would be to re-create the basket of goods commonly consumed by the poor in the country and obtain the amount of money to obtain a certain amount of calories. This is because there are changes in lifestyles, tastes and preferences of consumers across different regions of the country over the years. The Financial times points this out very well but does not provide any valid evidence to why the change in the basket is inaccurate as they claim.
In addition to the above, the technical teams involved in the data collection included experts, not only of NISR, but from NISR’s donors as well, and those donors’ consultants including the Oxford Policy Management, among others. NISR, on its own wouldn’t directly influence use of substandard methods in getting the poverty estimates. Its highly unlikely that all these experts would join a conspiracy by the Rwandan government to publish wrong statistics. The FT story talks of OPM backing out of the process at the end. OPM’s statement however doesn’t collaborate FT’s assertions.
The most important question really is whether Rwanda’s poverty estimates are correlated with other welfare indicators in the country. And the answer is a resounding YES! It would defy convention to have GDP growth of 8 percent for decades, with declining fertility rates, improving health and education outcomes and have poverty rates not reducing.
Furthermore, Comparisons with administrative parameters and data from neighbouring countries indicates that the poverty estimates and other measures were moving in the same direction.
Rwanda singled out for conspiracies on its data
As the World Bank says in its statement, Rwanda is not the first country whose data collection suffer methodological challenges and may result in figures that may be confusing to some. The difference is that whereas these data challenges are considered normal incidences in national statistical systems, for Rwanda, Western journalists, media and academics’ immediate impulse is to accuse Rwanda of intentional falsification of the data. This is part of their campaign to discredit the country because it is doesn’t follow the conventional governance precepts they teach and study in their ‘African Studies’ at their ivy league universities.
When neoliberal American pollsters and their neoliberal allies failed to predict the defeat of their heroine Hillary Clinton, did they do some soul-searching on why their methodologies failed? No. Did they try to wonder whether Trump’s cultic rallies and many Trump/Pence signs on front lawns across Michigan, a reliably democratic state, might have been considered in their methodologies? No. They had to find another reason for their epic failure. Russia. Russia stole the election for Donald Trump.
That’s what liberals do. That’s their orthodoxy. They are so arrogant that they won’t even believe their own data and evidence if it doesn’t follow their preconceived notions of what they think the world should be.
As I have written before, Rwanda drives these people insane. She has consistently defied Foreign Policy Magazine’s Fragile States Index, won’t kowtow to morbid forecasts of the International Crisis Group, and yes, won’t be lectured on human rights by the Human Rights Watch. And there’s no better antagonist to these self-righteous, paternalistic western liberal hacks than President Kagame himself. We have all seen those interviews where he deconstructs, with righteous anger, assertions thrown his way whether by a France 24 journalist, France’s judges meddling in its affairs, or a college student at some fancy New England University who, even when she can’t locate Rwanda on the globe, asks Mr Kagame why he is ‘authoritarian.’ She just does that because she believes talking down African presidents is some sort of rite of passage into the Peace Corps, and her liberal professors have taught her that Africa indeed is a basket case.
This coordinated onslaught on the integrity of Rwanda has a more ominous, darker, motive: For years a number of books, documentaries, essays and articles have been written by these academics, some rewriting history to downplay the significance of the genocide (and some outrightly denying it even happened) When these did not stick, the campaign now is to destroy the very idea of Rwanda as a country on fast track because its progress threatens their positions as ‘thought leaders’ and Experts on Africa in Washington’s and London’s foreign policy think tank ecosystem.
Many of these ‘experts’ thrive on doom and gloom casting of the development prognosis of African states. They hate Rwanda because she has upended the western liberal academic orthodoxy and its scholarship of Africa, which is that it is a basket case that is supposed to be in perpetual failure. The white Saviour complex that ills most of them can’t allow them to accept that indeed The ‘Rwanda Model’ is a thing, and that thing thingy is working!
Isn’t it ironic that The Economist, which in the year 2000 coined the ‘Africa Rising’ moniker (a narrative I have criticised before) to refer to the rapid economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa in then, and predicted that this rapid economic development on the continent was inevitably going to transform the continent, is now leading the charge against arguably one of the few African countries that’s truly ‘rising?’
Here is the irrefutable truth: Rwanda doesn’t ‘doctor’ its development numbers because she doesn’t need to because:
Her REAL doctors have no time for that. They are busy increasing Rwandan life expectancy from 29 years in 1994 to 67years today;
Rwanda’s doctors are busy using medical supplies delivered by drones to treat people in hard to reach areas;
Rwanda’s doctors were busy slashing Maternal mortality by 77 percent between 2000 and 2013, far exceeding the targets of the Millennium Development Goals;
Rwanda’s doctors are busy providing quality reproductive health care to their citizens, plunging higher fertility rates to ensure a productive and healthy population.
Enemies of Rwanda’s progress will have to learn to live with these realities.
Bernard Sabiti is a Ugandan researcher and political analyst.