Statistics seen as vital tools in battle to improve lives

Statistical graphics

Switzerland's interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, has called for new analytical tools and statistical instruments to be used for humanitarian purposes.

This content was published on September 4, 2000 minutes

Her appeal came at a major conference in Montreux on Monday on how statistics can help in the fight for human rights and against poverty.

The gathering is being jointly organised by the International Association for Official Statistics and two Swiss government agencies.

Some 700 delegates from 110 nations are meeting on the banks of Lake Geneva. They include the Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, the head of the International Labour Organisation, Juan Somavia, and the director of the UN Children's Fund, Carol Bellamy. About a third of the participants are from developing countries.

"The conference does not have a political objective," says Carlo Malaguerra, the head of the Swiss Federal Statistics Office. He told swissinfo the aim is to bring together the producers and users of statistics and to encourage a scientific debate so that more reliable mechanisms can be devised to measure human development.

"Official statistics have to respond better to the needs of the user," Malaguerra says. "The dialogue that will take place in Montreux is crucial. How do we measure human rights and development?"

One of the problems is that statistics often get a bad press. Too often they are manipulated and misused by politicians - "lies, damned lies and statistics", as Disraeli put it.

But they remain the only way of measuring how far a country has gone in meeting development and human rights targets, and formulating strategies for the future. The Swiss Development Cooperation Agency (Deza), which is one of the co-organisers, believes that statistics are an essential tool for building democracy.

"Our work isn't only about the money we spend. We also need to see what impact we have. And to measure impact, you need indicators. You need statistics," says Walter Fust, head of Deza.

Fust says that only with these statistical tools can development organisations like Deza meet the needs of partner countries and put their limited resources to optimum use. But he is aware that statistics are not always as accurate as they might be and it is necessary to interpret them correctly.

"It's up to our staff working in these countries to take the temperature - to decide whether statistics are accurate or falsified," Fust told swissinfo.

"Our main concern is to keep those who produce statistical data independent in their work so as to prevent misuse. But there will always be a great potential for statistics to be misused. We must always look at these statistics in context. But first you must actually have the statistics," he adds.

One of the biggest challenges will be persuading some developing countries to devote more resources to an independent statistical analysis of their development achievements: literacy rates, the number of women in education, the number of hospital beds, and so on.

"In a democratic state, public statistics are an essential guarantee of transparency. They are not only intended for the government, but also its citizens," Carlo Malaguerra says.

The international community is going as far as devising programmes whereby development aid would be linked to the provision of accurate data.

"These countries have to know too where they stand and in which direction they are going," says Malaguerra. "The international community realises that it's not enough to provide financial aid. They must also fund the production of statistical information in these countries."

Statistics give us a better grasp of reality and enable governments, non-governmental organisations and international aid groups to draw comparisons, identify trends and anticipate the future development of societies.

But these tools are hardly used at the moment for measuring violations of civil rights, political violence, racial discimination and summary justice. The Swiss government is hoping that the Montreux conference will help devise a mechanism to change that.

"I hope this conference will be the start of a large movement that will establish statistical information as a vital tool for developing and safeguarding institutions and democratic rights everywhere," Malaguerra says.

by Roy Probert

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