Trust in statistics: A crucial part of a modern democracy
Tunisia commits to setting the record straight on poverty
It is an article of common sense that effective solutions can only be achieved once problems have been clearly defined. While this is a sound rule-of-thumb, it can seem like a distant goal in an environment where facts are presented through a filtered lens, and no universally accepted method for measuring exists.
For decades Tunisians were confronted with facts at odds with their perceptions. To the outside world, there was little statistical evidence to support domestic frustration over the lack of economic opportunities. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime controlled official information to hide inconvenient truths.
Hidden from public scrutiny, key national indices represented the vision of the regime rather than the reality of the economy. Reports that bore little relationship with meaningful interpretation of the empirical evidence, such as a 2005 release by the National Institute of Statistics (INS) that had poverty rates at 3.8 percent, were published with hardly any explanation of what these numbers meant in terms of the well-being of the population.
Without understanding how such figures were measured, and without access to the underlying data, there was no way to challenge them.
The revolution that brought down the regime of Ben Ali presents Tunisia with an incredible opportunity: to pull back the curtain surrounding the production of its national statistics and at long last have an informed and open debate about how to reduce poverty and regional disparities.
With the release of public data, Tunisians are in the process of learning about their country anew. It has thrown many of the problems they face into stark relief, their severity now exceeding many of the previously held suspicions. Numbers and methodology are now being revised in line with international best practices and to align them with the reality of a middle income country like Tunisia, and the perceptions of its citizens. This sort of revision is only the beginning of a long and complicated process of overcoming the legacy of the previous regime.
The new government has committed to addressing Tunisia’s poverty, dramatic regional disparities, and other pressing social issues. The policies it chooses will be based on a careful assessment of the nature of the problems and consideration about how best to address them. For this approach to work, it is essential that the government institutions responsible for generating data have the resources and know-how to ensure that their work is done accurately and is well documented. This will help to overcome the widespread popular mistrust of official statistics and statistical organizations that developed during the decades before 2011.
The interim government approached the World Bank for support in completing this critical task. A team from the World Bank is now working with the INS to review their poverty methodology, and to share the best practices in poverty measurement learnt from countries around the world. The African Development Bank has also joined this collaborative effort, and the three institutions will work together to develop a revised methodology that reflects the true nature of poverty in modern Tunisia.
The new poverty methodology will only be effective if it is broadly understood and accepted by government and civil society. To this end, the INS has established a Steering Committee to review the theoretical rigor behind the new poverty estimates. This committee brings together representatives from government, Civil Society Organizations, and academia. In line with the Tunisian government’s emphasis on transparency, and to encourage citizen engagement, each step of the review process and technical details will be made freely available online.
Trust in government institutions and freedom of information are critical parts of a thriving democracy. Once lost, regaining that trust is a long process. Tunisia is now undergoing that process, and we look forward to helping them.