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Statistics seen as key to fostering democracy

Statistics are powerful weapons in forcing governments to be accountable to their citizens. That's the conclusion of an international conference on statistics, which closed on Friday in the Swiss town of Montreux.

The five-day conference – organised by the Swiss government – aimed to find ways of using statistics to “measure” human rights and poverty with the aim of helping to improve the lives of those worst affected.

“The conference does not have a political objective,” Carlo Malaguerra, the head of the Swiss Federal Statistics Office, told swissinfo.

He said the he was to bring together the producers and users of statistics and to encourage debate so more reliable mechanisms can be devised to measure human development.

At the closing session, the Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, said it was clear that statistics “are powerful instruments for compelling governments and their institutions to be accountable and for enabling civil society to exercise control over public authorities”.

But the delegates agreed that the process by which statistics are compiled and used needed to be refined. They said it was essential that statistics are reliable, and that they are interpreted in context.

They said that on issues such as human rights, it was too simplistic to simply rate countries as “good” or “bad” according to a universal scale. They proposed instead that indicators be developed to enable comparisons between countries in the same region with similar structures and problems.

The conference also highlighted the lack of instruments for measuring human rights and progress in development. The delegates said it was vital that mechanisms are developed to gauge civil and political rights and to assess improvements and changes in attitudes.

The meeting ended with a call for the setting up of an international network of expert statisticians to better respond to development needs and to improve statistical services in impoverished countries.

The conference was attended by more than 700 people from 123 countries and 35 international organisations, including the UN 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 were from developing countries.

swissinfo with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR