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Trust in statistics: A crucial part of a modern democracy

Daniela Marotta's picture
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This blog has been co-authored by Daniela Marotta and Thomas Walker

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.  


Submitted by RCarranza on
But weren't the same institutions and persons in Tunisia who were involved in concealing these statistics on poverty, among other economic and social policies they pursued, the same ones that the World Bank engaged with, mentored even, in the frenzy of privatization that followed the removal of Habib Bourguiba and the ascension of Ben Ali? This means that the WB at the very least ought to have known that something was being hidden; but I don't think that that is the core of the WB's complicity in the hardship that was the driver of the Revolution against Ben Ali. The WB financed Ben Ali. Nobody could NOT have known, but specially a bank that as lending heavily to his government, that corruption and crony capitalism was happening. That there are no statistics counting the sums Ben Ali and his family stole shows the hollowness of privileging an econometric approach to poverty. To have "an informed and open debate about how to reduce poverty and regional disparities" would need more than unveiling the quantitative side to the Ben Ali regime's economic and social policies. It needs an unveiling of the roles that international financial actors played in encouraging and enabling Ben Ali. It disturbs me that after years of rhetoric about good governance and fighting corruption, and after the recent World Development Report (WDR) focus on the link between justice and development, there has been no acknowledgement of any kind by any one in the WB -- at the institutional level -- of the Bank's complicity in both the corruption and the human rights (including economic and social rights) violations committed by dictators like Ben Ali. I would be happy to be wrong on this and to be pointed to any official record that the WB has, in fact, learned its lessons, too.

Many thanks for taking the time to share your opinions.

World Bank activity in Tunisia has covered a range of projects, which have included a diverse set of investments over the years from education and agriculture, to wastewater management and avian flu preparedness. We invite you to review all the relevant information which is readily available on the Bank's website. Yet despite this diversity, our mission has remained unchanged: to promote development as a means to provide better opportunities and living conditions for poor people, and ultimately to end poverty.

The World Bank was founded by governments to lend to governments. Therefore our interlocutors have been mainly governments. Our understanding of what constitutes effective development and how to achieve it has evolved over the years. It is clear to us that economic growth is only meaningful if its benefits are shared by the many and not reserved for the privileged few. This is a message we have brought to all the governments we partner with. The ‘Arab Spring’ both confirmed many of our conclusions and impressed upon us the need to broaden our engagement, to make sure we are talking to citizens as well as governments. It has also become clear that informed and engaged citizens holding governments to account are an essential condition for shared growth. When the new government in Tunisia asked for our support in implementing a set of governance reforms aimed at creating a clear break with the past, we were quick to respond. Enhancing public access to information was part of this initiative which has led to the development and adoption of legislation guaranteeing free access to information for all Tunisians; we are now working with partners in Tunisia to make access to information a reality.

This is a vital first step in giving citizens the means to hold their government to account. This is one aspect of the long-term support we will offer to help Tunisia achieve its goal of inclusive and sustainable development.

As we develop new projects they will be posted on our web site. We hope you will take the time to review them and offer comment and feedback. Holding us to account will help us refine our strategies, and ensure that all our projects produce their intended results.

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