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Strengthen public debate with comprehensible statistics

In Uganda, even at the peoples parliament of Ekimeeza, where intellectuals are supposed to be gathered, there is a substantial lack of numbers, statistics and measurable facts. People have not mastered advanced counting and have no logical perception of values and numbers. 2000 – 500 = a big problem for a lot of people. So how can they fully understand the bigger picture of the situation they are in? When they are presented with a series of numbers, for instance the amount of money coming in to the country through development aid or the amount of tax money spent on government housing, there are very few who can comprehend what is meant by 400 million dollars or 700.000 Euro.

Without these countable facts, arguments may easily turn into subjective accusations. The first Ekimeeza I visited was about the constituency development fund, a rather unfortunate name for a grand of 10 million shillings (€ 3600) a year. It was perceived by most of the participants as a fund that should build the roads or start up business in the districts. That this money was not even enough to pay for the fuel used by an MP’s car was only mentioned by a visiting MP, later in the Ekimeeza. A substantial amount of people were angry at MP’s for not bringing change with their 10 million shillings and accused them of using the money for personal gain. Although this is in certain cases definitely true, the discussion lost its context because of the inability of participants to place these numbers in the wider picture.

Even well educated speakers have problems backing up their arguments with quantative data. Numbers which they want to apply in their speech are often times incomprehensible and missing accuracy. One man, an economist, who in the last Ekimeeza discussion on employment came up with numerical data, repeatedly had the argument right but the numbers wrong. Instead of 320.000 government employed people he talked about the 3200 employed. Instead of 31 million people he kept talking about just thirty one people, just if the numbers were of minor importance. This was the only participant at the Ekimeeza who took the opportunity of pointing out statistics. Even though he often made some big miscalculations, it made the discussion more understandable and the debate much more interesting. In all parts of Ugandan society there is a great lack of solid data. This makes society vulnerable to insinuations, lies, corruption, insecurity and so on. Countability is therefore an essential part of accountability.

By using numbers, claims can be strengthened and depersonalized by comprehensible, transparent and true numbers. An important issue within this practice of (ac)countability is visualization of data. With rows of numbers people cannot be convinced. They lack the capacity to place the numbers in a context and will therefore not be interested. To make the numbers potent, they should be visualized in a comprehensible way.  Required are graphs, examples and recognizable symbols. ‘41%’ might not be understandable to a great number of people, However if you visualize this by drawing a pie chart, the number becomes real. Research should look into culture specific ways to clarify neccasary information to citizens in order to arm them with knowlege that enables them to hold leaders accountable.

Using info graphics, complex statistics can be put into context and lots of confusion can be eliminated. In the graphic below we see a great overview which puts things in perspective. For more infographics go to www.informationisbeautiful.net . The use of infographics in Africa should also imply research into cultural differences in interpreting graphics.


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