Ideas & Debate

Deploy data to fight poverty, not as political tool

KNBS celebrates poverty reduction over the 2005-2015 period, but warns that one in three Kenyans remains “poor overall and food poor”. FILE PHOTO | NMG
KNBS celebrates poverty reduction over the 2005-2015 period, but warns that one in three Kenyans remains “poor overall and food poor”. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The World Bank was recently quoted in the press observing that “Kenya is not on track to eradicate poverty by 2030”. This story, drawn from the Bank’s April 2018 Kenya Economic Update, made three points.

First, at an annualised poverty reduction rate of 1.8 per cent from 2005 and 2015, one quarter of the population (16 million people) will fall below the $1.90 per day absolute poverty line in 2030.

Second, we must cut poverty by 6.1 per cent annually to attain the “below 3 per cent poverty rate” that is SDG One’s “2030 zero absolute poverty” standard. Third, this will only happen with high, inclusive growth (to raise household consumption) and redistributive policies (to reduce inequality).

The update further offers two extremes and one realism. If we don’t reduce inequality, real household consumption (that is, growth) at an annual rate of 11.4 per cent to 2030 is required. If household consumption remains stagnant, inequality must reduce by 2.9 per cent every year over the same period.

Realistically, average annual growth of 5.5 per cent coupled with annual inequality reduction of 1.5 per cent would achieve the same result. We didn’t hit either benchmark in the previous decade.

The report highlights agriculture’s contribution to recent poverty reduction. Kenya’s poverty levels compare favourably with sub-Saharan peers; less so with similar lower middle income countries.

Why talk about poverty today? Before SDG One, the eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease was our post independence political rallying call. Given our politics, what have our leaders done for us?

Beyond politics, Kenya’s “planning and budgeting season” ends soon. The “Big Four-inspired” 2018-2022 National Medium Term Plan will soon be launched; ditto County Integrated Development Plans.

National and County Budget Estimates are being finalised, with the 2018/19 fiscal year – the first for our 48 fresh (and not so fresh) governments beginning this July. Even in these corrupt times, shouldn’t we be interrogating these governments’ poverty reduction agendas and strategies?

What about poverty data released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics in March 2018? Yes, that will help in providing baselines at both national and county levels that we should pay equal attention to.

In its own report, KNBS celebrates poverty reduction over the 2005-2015 period, but warns that one in three Kenyans remains “poor overall and food poor” while one in 12 falls in the “absolute poor” category.

What about the future? Well, we don’t seem to enjoy “modelling the future” as the World Bank did to arrive at its conclusions in that headline story above. So let’s try another source.

Apparently there’s some fascinating SDG-related work, funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, on the Vienna-based World Data Lab’s World Poverty Clock.

Simply, this clock is a real-time simulation that “models” SDG target against actual rates of “persons escaping poverty per minute” across most countries in the world using a global database of income information standardised around the $1.90 poverty line.

To be clear, modelling is not about predictions, but insights. Insights help us think and learn. Further, modelling a complex developmental impact like poverty reduction relies on an intricate mix of political, social and economic variables and assumptions based on past analysis and known trends.

So think about the clock as “work in progress”. Then consider the following data for May 2018, at a point where the current global poverty escape rate is 1.1 against a target of 1.5 persons per minute.

Only six countries in Africa have “zero poverty” – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Only two more will attain this goal by 2030: Ethiopia and Mauritania. In 11 countries, poverty is rising. Kenya is reducing poverty, but not fast enough.

Ethiopia’s current escape rate is five persons against a target of 2.9. Kenya’s numbers are 0.5 (actual) vs. 1.7 (target) persons. Basically, Ethiopia is “escaping” people from poverty ten times faster than Kenya.

The clock also models county level escape rates for Kenya. Only Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru and Lamu have “zero poverty”. Nineteen of the remaining 43 counties are on course for 2030; 24 (50 per cent) are not.

“Top Five” escape rates? Kakamega (2.3) Makueni and Meru (1.8), Kitui and Kiambu (1.6). Three quarters of our counties are escaping poverty at less than a person a minute; half a dozen have negative escape rates.

In global perspective, India’s escape rate is 45 people per minute and they are on course for 2030.

If you didn’t enjoy these numbers, think about media reports on corruption and ask two questions.

How do we shift the oral nature of our national discourse towards an insight-driven data culture that models Kenya’s future without necessarily predicting it? In other words, can we learn to learn better?

Food for thought.

Kabaara is a management consultant