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Independent data analyst shares thoughts on new Poverty study Part 2

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

With the release of such long awaited poverty data (a wait of over 10 years!) there should be a wide-ranging and thought-provoking discussion about the results, and the implications for policies and programs moving forward. However, there seems to be a deafening silence on the topic. We seem to, once again, simply move on to the next day’s news headlines.

Maybe after the “hot” topics of constitutional changes and UDP leadership, the topic will rise to the top again, and we’ll look seriously at the issue of poverty, and it’s long lasting inter-generational issues, and what it means for the wider development of the country and its people – I can only hope.

To begin any discussion of this data, however, there needs to be a full understanding of how the results were obtained.

In the last Country Poverty Assessment, there were two reports produced by the consultancy team—300 pages in the main report and over 80 pages in the much more technical report.

Now, this study is not a country poverty assessment. It is only one of the now five recommended components of such an exercise, and so I would not expect such a comprehensive set of documents. But so far, I have only seen the press conference and a two-page summary of the results.

I have not seen any document that explains how the results were calculated, and this is really important for three reasons:

  1. There is the need for the public to have confidence in the data and results. We have seen with many topics, that convincing people of anything these days is often a challenge, and that you need to have solid data, apply good scientific approaches and above all be transparent about what you did and how you did it. Statistics as a field needs to earn its reputation, and it does that by being open and collaborative.

  2. There is a huge change in the underlying survey from 2009 to 2018. A survey is like a photograph in time; it captures a specific picture in detail. That’s what happened in May 2009. In 2018, we took four pictures, once a quarter over 12 months. How do you compare 4 pictures with only 1 picture? Do you try and merge the four together to get one more detailed picture? Do you treat all 4 pictures the same? What if one is very blurry but the other three are sharp, do you drop the blurry one? Do you just pick the one picture that looks like the original, so you take the quarter closest to May? I’d love to know how SIB approached this problem. Secondly, were the questions the same in the two surveys? Whilst they both ask questions about expenditures, different ways of asking the same question can lead to very different results.

  3. There are significant results from the study – anytime you say about half a country is poor, or that results are very different to the last set of results, you must have very good data to back it up. I’m sure SIB have, but they need to be open and transparent about it, so that we can rigorously review their approach, offer constructive criticism and improve our approach to the most important study we have in the country.

This open and transparent approach also needs to be a collaborative effort. In 2010, the report was written by a UK consultancy team. The fact that this study has been conducted by SIB (with the support of Statistics Canada) is a great step in the right direction, but it is only one step.

For such an important study, there has to be a wide range of views and opinions, and a body of experts must be part of the process – not just to review a report once it’s published, but to agree on the study design before it begins, to discuss and agree on decisions throughout the study, and, of course, on the final results.

Gone are the days when a single Ministry, or Statistics Agency, can solely be an expert on poverty and publish results. It’s long been acknowledged that poverty is multidimensional, and the world formally adopted this in the Sustainable Development Goals, where we have target 1.2 which states “by 2030 (to) reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions.”

So we can agree poverty isn’t just about income and expenditure, not just dollars but dimensions – including access to quality education, access to quality healthcare and health education, employment and training opportunities, and many more that we can debate and argue and finally agree upon. So, if this is how we define poverty, then the actors tasked to address it, also need to be multidimensional, and that starts with a group of skilled people with diverse backgrounds and talents, who oversee its measurement.

So, moving forward, the country has to quickly agree on a body that will lead poverty assessments in the future. This should be a standing body, with a strong academic backbone, that does not simply convene for a study every 11, 12 or however many years. But sits all year round to ensure that regular poverty studies are conducted; that they are analyzed accurately and the results published regularly and widely. A multidimensional poverty measure is unique across all the SDG targets (169 in total), because it is the only target where each national government is responsible for its definition (the official language says “…according to national definitions.”). The SDG agenda was adopted over 6 years ago, and has only 9 years left. Yet, we are no closer to defining “poverty in all its dimensions” than we were when we signed on the SGDs.

In summary, good quality data and strong, robust analysis on poverty is much needed, and should be welcomed at each opportunity. However, it needs to be open, transparent and collaborative going forward, and we need to move to a multidimensional definition, which allows for more accurate measurement, and better policy responses – and ultimately better lives for all our citizens.

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