Rwanda accused of manipulating poverty statistics

Rwandan authorities manipulated the latest official statistics on poverty to make it look like it was going down, while much of the source data suggested it was actually on the increase, according to information obtained by FRANCE 24.

Jose Cendon, AFP | The Rwandan government wants to be able to claim that poverty is decreasing

While international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch regularly accuse the Rwandan government of oppressing its people, Rwanda is usually praised by the West for its development policies.

But according to information obtained by FRANCE 24 and Belgian university professor Filip Reyntjens, Kigali has brazenly manipulated its latest official report on poverty in the central African country.

The story starts with private organisation Oxford Policy Management (OPM), which regularly provides statistical data on Rwanda’s socio-economic situation. OPM hands over this data to Rwanda, which then publishes it.

Poverty ‘actually rose by six percent’

But in the most recent case – concerning a report entitled “Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey” (EICV4), focusing on the period 2013-14 and published last month – the facts appear to have been altered by the Rwandan government department responsible for publishing official economic statistics.

“This time there was a disagreement between OPM and Rwanda over the methodology used,” one source close to the case – who like most sources who criticise Rwanda asked to remain anonymous – told FRANCE 24.

This source contacted Dr Filip Reyntjens, professor of African Law and Politics at the University of Antwerp, who is considered one of the leading experts on Rwanda today.

“The government changed the methodology, especially the poverty line, before publishing the report,” Reyntjens told FRANCE 24. “So in the final report, instead of going up, poverty levels appears to have gone down by several percentage points.”

“We redid the calculations using the initial methodology, and the results show that the poverty rate actually rose by six percent in 2013-14,” he added.

To obtain this decrease in the poverty levels, the authors modified the consumption criteria of the poorest Rwandans.

“They massively reduced the quantities (by 70% of more) of three traditional staples: sweet potato, Irish potato and banana,” another source, who also asked not to be named, told FRANCE 24. “This is not valid and therefore we cannot have confidence in the new poverty line as put forward by the report.”

OPM distances itself from the final report

The Rwandan authorities do state in the report state they had to “update” the methodology. They also compare the EICV4 results with previous reports, an incorrect and misleading argument because of the altered methodology.

Furthermore, in previous reports OPM was always mentioned as one of the authors. This time it isn’t, and OPM members reportedly refused to be named because of the changes.

OPM told FRANCE 24 they had submitted work for EICV4 but did not want to make any further comment.

“Our contract has a confidentiality clause that prevents us from disclosing any information about the work that we have done for Stats Rwanda,” said OPM Director Simon Hunt.

FRANCE 24 also asked the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, responsible for publishing the final report, for a reaction. At first they did not respond. The Institute later said that director had gone on holiday for several weeks.

Britain backs Rwanda

The United Kingdom is one of Rwanda’s biggest donors, and London is regularly accused of being too lenient with President Paul Kagame, who has been Rwanda’s de facto leader for more than twenty years.

A change in the constitution will soon allow him to run for a controversial third term in office, and any proof that he has been able to reduce poverty in Rwanda will be a significant advantage.

London has jumped to defend Kigali amid the latest allegations. The Department for International Development (DFID), a United Kingdom government department responsible for administering overseas aid, told FRANCE 24 it was “aware of concerns raised by some people regarding the latest poverty estimates in Rwanda”.

“We believe the revision of the methodology used to estimate poverty levels for the EICV4 poverty survey was justified,” a DFID spokesman added.

Filip Reyntjens, from the University of Antwerp, strongly disagrees: “There were no major changes in the structure of people’s consumption. They didn’t only update the poverty line, as they say, but they went as far as artificially reducing it to give the impression that the poverty rate was going down when in reality it was going up.

“There is no methodological justification for that.”

To explain why the West – and particularly the UK – remains silent on such blatant manipulation, one leading expert on Rwanda, who asked not to be named, put forward several reasons.

“There are strategic interests,” the expert said. “Seven years ago Kagame decided that English would replace French in schools and in government administration. His country joined the Commonwealth and London is Rwanda’s biggest aid donor, so if the country’s results are good it shows that the aid money is being used efficiently.”

For Filip Reyntjens, the EICV4 case is serious. “Rwanda is keen on showing strong ‘development’ and the international community continues to accept a trade-off between this ‘development’ and repression,” he said.

“If this ‘development’ is not based on evidence, as appears to be the case now, all that is left is repression.”

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