It’s Not Just the Data. It’s Politics

Published on 2nd October 2019

Data has always influenced government operations and in the process used as a tool to score political goals. History indicates that invention of statistical procedures has often been instrumental in redistribution of economic resources and economic planning.

Ideally, national budgets should be formulated based on data collected by government. The accuracy or inaccuracy of the data may lead to attainment or lack thereof of expected policy outcomes. A blog article published by the Center for Global Development (CDG) highlights why bad data is synonymous with African governments. The authors highlight that the political economy of bad data arises from factors such as lack of effective checks and balances on financial and reputational rewards associated with data, political interference and inadequate and inconsistent funding of statistical agencies.

Recently, the Kenyan government presided over a week-long national population census with fundamental concerns raised about personal data security and credibility of the exercise. A few days before the onset of the national population census, Uhuru Kenyatta assented to the Statistics Amendment Bill into law (Statistics Act 2019) arguably to counter opposition to credibility of the process and outcome.

Need to Worry

A new clause in the Statistics Act 2019 allows for the cancellation, revision or adjustment of data deemed to be inaccurate. Well, this may quickly address the anomalies of bad data but considering the big brother role of government, there is need to worry about the eventuality of data manipulation. Manipulation of data (data on population, food security, Gross Domestic Product, inflation, affirmative action, public debt, wage bill, education etc.) will lead to formulation of distorted policies or lack of accountability from the national government.

Kenya’s rising public debt and consistent failure of the Jubilee administration to deliver on its big promises set stage for manipulation of data to gain political capital. Latest statistical information from the Central Bank of Kenya indicates that the total public debt amounted to Kshs.5.809 trillion as at June 2019.

It will not be a surprise if the national government, the Executive in particular, resorts to present manipulated data to indicate that all is well in regards to the level of public debt. This would involve understating or misreporting the actual amount of public debt.

Why public debt? It is spiraling upwards at an alarming rate and the performance of the economy is not sufficient to offset it, and politicians serving in the corrupt Jubilee administration would want to score political goals as far as borrowing is concerned with the 2022 general elections fast approaching.

GDP statistics may also be doctored by the regime ostensibly to paint a rosy picture to current and prospective ‘development partners.’ ‘Development partners are religiously obsessed with fanciful GDP growth rates and the Executive would easily manipulate GDP data either to borrow more or not to scare the Chinese government and other debtors, on Kenya’s inability to meet its debt obligations. Lorenzo Fioramonti documents in his book, “Gross Domestic Problem”, that GDP is “an extremely powerful political tool” and “also a powerful propaganda tool.”

Assuring the Chinese that the debt mill is not running out of steam would be important for guarding Kenya’s sovereignty as Beijing may want to take hold of the latter’s resources such as the port of Mombasa or the oil in Turkana among others. China took over Malaysia’s key infrastructural project after Malaysia failed to service Chinese loans.

Last year, concerns were raised about the possibility of the Chinese government taking over the port of Mombasa and the then Auditor General Edward Ouko weighed in on the matter pointing out the possibility of Beijing annexing the infrastructural facility.

Kenyans have to be more worried about their privacy considering failed political projects like the Huduma Number. Huduma Number is undemocratic. The move by the Executive to force people to register for a dubious project even with a court order stating that the registration should be voluntary negates the rights and freedoms of the masses.

Dim Future?

In a world where data mining is a cash cow, Kenyans risk having their personal information misused. In the lead up to the 2017 general elections, Cambridge Analytica demonstrated how to profit from data in the era of fast-paced technological advancement.

The 2022 general elections may witness an intensified approach in reference to the use of big data as a political strategy. But who cares? The big brother government? Certainly not. Parliament no longer advocates for the goodwill of the masses. Although the Huduma Bill promises to protect personal data, the government cannot be trusted. Selfish interests trample collective interests. And government mandarins are without doubt more selfish.

Having the right data and good intentions would help the government and its agencies plan efficiently especially on food security, education and healthcare. Planning is a political process and data is an effective political and propaganda tool which could easily sabotage democracy. Kenya could as well be a statistic of politicizing data.

By Sitati Wasilwa

The writer is a political economist and consultant on governance and public policy. He blogs at and ([email protected]).

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