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Monday, May 11, 2015

Tanzania Becomes the Anti-Hong Kong, Bans Private Statistics

Numbers don't lie — but politicians do

Sir John Cowperthwaite was the Financial Secretary of British Hong Kong from 1961 to 1971, and he is generally credited with being the force behind Hong Kong’s laissez-faire economy, a policy that allowed the tiny Chinese region to rise from the depths of poverty to a higher standard of living than Britain itself.

When he was asked to name his greatest achievement, he replied that he was most proud of abolishing the collection of official government statistics. He reasoned that if he let bureaucrats use tax money to create the numbers, “I might be forced to do something about them,” and, “If I let them compute those statistics, they’ll want to use them for planning.”

In state-run economies, such statistics are essential to attempt to judge whether a policy is “working” the way planners hoped, but Cowperthwaite didn’t want to government to managing the economy at all, and he thought that official statistics would tempt people into thinking they could.

This year, the ruling regime in Tanzania has taken a big, bold step in the exact opposite direction, by essentially banning unofficial statistics, lest they prove that the government’s policies are not working.

Foreign Aid and Public Schools

BBC4’s More or Less radio program reports that in the year 2000, only 60% of Tanzanian kids went to school, barely a few percent more than a decade earlier. That’s bad.

But fortunately, the UN, World Bank, and Western governments were there with dump truck loads of foreign aid — over $26 billion since 1990, more than any African country except Ethiopia — to help Tanzania meet the “Millennium Development Goals,” including “universal primary education” by 2015.

USAID alone provides over $10 million of education aid per year to the Tanzanian government as part of “a results-oriented, evidence-based early grade reading program.”

Thanks to the incentives built into such aid, the government made school attendance mandatory, and now 95% of Tanzanian children are enrolled in primary school. Goal met, achievement unlocked, right?

Just one problem: unofficial statistics from civil society groups show that, “Only a third of kids ten and above can read an English paragraph from the syllabus they follow, and a study by the World Bank found that teachers were absent half of the time its researchers visited classrooms.”

In fact, at urban schools, government teachers are absent from the classroom nearly 70% of the time, and when present, they teach less than 90 minutes a day on average.

As for the results, a study by USAID found that, “When Tanzanian children finish primary level, their performance is extremely poor, with seven out of every ten children unable to read basic Swahili and nine out of every ten children unable to read basic English.”

The Politics of Censorship and Corruption

This is all extremely embarrassing for a government that is dependent on foreign aid for about a sixth of its budget — especially since in October 2014, donors froze about half a billion dollars in aid to Tanzania because state officials had been caught illegally transferring $122 million from the central bank to private offshore accounts.

Meanwhile, four other major corruption scandals have hit the ruling party in the last year, and it is facing unprecedented opposition, with an election just a few months away. Its political opponents are telling the World Bank that giving money to the Tanzanian state means that they are “becoming allies of the corrupt regime.”

So the government did what any embarrassed, fearful autocrats would do: they passed a bill to outlaw “false” statistics — meaning only official numbers will be allowed. Another of six similar bills rushed through the legislature makes it illegal to publish information that is “defamatory,” likely to “disturb the public peace,” or “misleading or inaccurate.”

What are “false statistics”? What counts as “misleading” or “disturbing”? Nobody is sure, since the government hasn’t bothered to publish the final versions of the acts it passed, but we do know who will get to decide — and the punishment could include a prison sentence of up to three years.

Such laws mean that only one version of the development story will be told — that of benevolent bureaucrats, heroic aid agencies, and the resounding success of the Millennium Development Goals. The fact 95% of Tanzanian children are in school will be trumpeted, and the fact that 50% of them are in classrooms with no teacher, or that 92% cannot read at grade level, or that 70-90% cannot read at all, will never be heard.

Instead of censoring statistics, begging for foreign aid, and pressing children into state schools, Tanzania’s rulers should take a page from Cowperthwaite’s book and look to Hong Kong as a model for development — property rights, rule of law, low taxes, and free trade — and stay out of the numbers business. The people can and will take care of themselves if they are free to peacefully cooperate and work together. 

  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.