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Where Excel spreadsheets can mean prison

If you believe the Tanzanian government, the country’s economy is flourishing. The opposition thinks this is wrong. Now the parliament wants to make the questioning of official statistics a punishable offence. The World Bank is worried.

It sounded a bit like an economic miracle. Tanzania has seen impressive growth figures over the past decade, and according to the World Bank the figure was six to seven percent annually. As with all countries, the figures are largely based on government figures – and, like unemployment and poverty reduction figures, have been questioned by the opposition.

Now Parliament has reacted. But not with a clean-up of the statistics, but with a change in the law that only President John Magufuli has to sign: Anyone who dares to question official statistics in Tanzania in the future will have to pay the equivalent of at least 3780 euros – a multiple of the average annual salary. In the worst case, critical doubters could face up to three years in prison.

Transparency and a debate on the collection of official statistics are elementary. For investors, donor countries and, last but not least, voters who have to form an opinion on the progress of their country. This is unlikely to be possible in Tanzania in the future, and in some areas the collection of statistics will be punishable. The World Bank criticized the planned tightening of the law as “deviating from international standards”.

Illustration of the Caritas press trip to Burundi and Rwanda. Photo: Goat distribution to needy women and widows taken on 19 June 2018, near Gitega in Burundi. In Burundi, children are starving among green fields. Every second child suffers from the consequences of malnutrition. The small country in the heart of Africa is one of the poorest states in the world with about eleven million people.

Africa must free itself from its backwardness

These concerns were communicated to the authorities and the changes could “have a serious impact on the generation and use of official and unofficial statistics, which are an important cornerstone for the development of the country”, the organisation stated in unusually clear terms. The World Bank is now considering withholding 43 million euros in funding already pledged for the development of “sustainable statistical systems”.

The problem of sometimes unreliable government data has gained relevance in Africa since 2016. At the time, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that highly indebted Mozambique had concealed over a billion dollars in debt in order to obtain new loans – a serious offence. The debt burden of African countries has risen massively in the past two years.

According to the IMF, not only Mozambique but also Congo, Southern Sudan and Eritrea ran into financial difficulties in 2017 and were no longer able to service interest and debt. This was the case in Zimbabwe a year earlier, where Zambia is seeking an IMF rescue package. Worldwide, 24 out of 60 low-wage countries – the majority of them in Africa – are either in a debt crisis or on the verge of one. That is more than twice as many as five years ago.

The official data are correspondingly important. In 2014, the Good Governance Africa Institute published a study according to which 17 African countries had not made a census for at least ten years and five for more than 20 years (Western Sahara, Congo, Eritrea, Somalia and Madagascar). At the time, the World Bank attributed sufficient statistical methods and capacities to only 16 of the 54 African countries.

Statistics have an enormous influence on the cooperation of aid organisations and donor countries with developing countries, argues the scientist Morten Jerven in his book “Poor Numbers”: “Rich nations and international financial institutions allocate their resources on the basis of such data”. This is not only a technical problem, but also has a “massive impact” on the well-being of citizens in the countries concerned.

Since the 1990s there have been increased efforts to address these shortcomings, including the “Paris21 Initiative”, the “Marrakech Action Plan for Statistics” and other United Nations and African Union initiatives. This will lead to improvements, but by no means sufficient data.

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The opposition in many African countries expresses doubts about official data. No government is happy to see them. However, no country with serious democratic aspirations has taken such a radical approach as Tanzania. That fits the picture. After his election in 2015, President Magufuli got off to a brilliant start, preventing expensive group trips by parliamentarians, buying luxury cars for ministers and taking uncompromising action against corruption. He even reduced his own salary from 15,000 to 4000 dollars.

Finally, however, the politician took worrying action against civil society. He passed laws restricting opposition rallies. In 2016, he closed the government-critical “Mawio” newspaper – a fate with which he also threatens radio and television stations because of the alleged lack of license payments. Dozens of citizens were arrested for insulting the president on the Internet.

When rap singer Emmanuel Elibariki asked in a song last year whether there was still “freedom of expression in this country”, he got the answer promptly. No, because he was also arrested.