Sunday, 3 May 2009

“That in itself is interesting”: In defence of statistics!

It seems to be a common utterance among research students in Sudan these days: “That in itself is interesting.” A mantra we utter as we stare down the barrel of impossibility and leap into the pit of despair (Perhaps I am being a tad dramatic).

A snapshot into my current mental state:

No statistics on the tribal background of recent graduates? “That in itself is interesting.”

Not very many engineering graduates from Southern Sudan and Darfur? “That in itself is interesting.”

I can’t talk to half the graduates because they are working in the Gulf? “That in itself is interesting.”

People don’t want to talk about that issue? “That in itself is interesting.”

But the mantra only gets you so far… Every now and then, it would be nice to have one problem/pain/patience-free day when I don’t have to utter those words and shake my fist into the sky. But I am not alone.

Last night, I went to Nahla Yousif Khiery’s excellent presentation on children and the law in Khartoum State. She hit upon a common problem of Sudanese research; the lack of statistics. In her case: the ethnic/tribal background of young offenders and victims of crime.

Nahla wants to make the case that certain groups in society are more vulnerable to crime, either due to poverty or lack of political/legal leverage. She has plenty of anecdotal evidence to back this up but she does not have accurate statistics. She is in the same boat as a lot of other researchers.  WE WANT SOME STATISTICS!

The census debacle last year revealed one of the biggest problems with research in Sudan: the government does not want to include tribal background in its statistics. We can look at this in two ways:

Possibility Number One: The state wants to treat all citizens equally and there should be no differentiation between tribal groups. 

Some say that British colonialism is to blame for the often-violent tribalism in Sudan; that in some way, the colonial administration created or at least strengthened the boundaries between different groups in an effort to control and manage its colonial subjects. Appadurai writes, that in India colonial body-counts not only created “types and classes (the first move toward domesticating differences) but also homogenous bodies (within categories), because number, by its nature, flattens idiosyncrasies and creates boundaries around these homogenous bodies, since it performatively limits their extent” (Appadurai, 1993: 20). To a certain extend this is also true in Sudan. By classifying peoples according to homogenous descriptions, the colonial state flattened the social world and institutionalized identity.

So perhaps the government’s rejection of tribal classification represents a firm rejection of the colonial mentality and even, the whole idea of tribalism itself. A new Sudan? 

Possibility Number Two: The state wants to conceal ethnic/tribal inequalities and make discrimination or marginalization less visible.

This is a more cynical view to be sure, but it’s hard not to slip into cynicism when you are frustrated with dead ends.

I don’t like to think of the state as a systematic “hider” of the truth. Managing people is a messy business and institutions don’t always get things right; they are clumsy. That is not to say that they don’t ever try. In fact, someone working in Darfur recently told me that the government has been trying to pick up the slack of the departed NGOs and has sent doctors and aid into the camps. Well, the non-rebel controlled camps. This is very good news and just goes to show what the Sudanese state can do when there is political will. 

On the other hand, you do have to wonder: Knowledge is power. Statistics are proof. The state, like all states in the world, wants to sell a certain image of itself to its public. They don’t want to look bad and statistics might make that... well, tricky. 

The Danger of Statistics

It is hard to imagine that something quite so nerdy as a statistic might start a war, but we must not forget that the Darfur conflict began with the publication and distribution of the Black Book; a book that served up the country’s statistics and exposed Darfur’s economic and political marginalization to the masses. Statistics can be very dangerous. Especially when they come from angry rebel groups with guns.

But what about all the timid, and some might say, tiny researchers out there who just want some statistics to get them through the day? Maybe a few statistics that will allow them to make the case for a change in child justice laws? Or for recruitment policies that help more marginalized groups? Or targeted health education?

Perhaps because I am British and I study economics, I like statistics. I like to draw models and classify things with attractive colorful keys and occasional shading when color printing is unavailable. I like graphs and pie charts (and not just because they make me think of pie). No, gluttony aside, I think that statistics are grand; they allow you to observe patterns among huge groups of people; they allow you to find inconsistencies and vulnerabilities; they allow you see what is going on at the national or even international scale. I would go so far as to say that you cannot look at the big picture without a portion of statistics on your plate. 

Of course, statistics are not perfect and you can manipulate them until they no longer mean anything at all. I know this because I have tried to use SPSS. And of course, they are not always the best tools (especially when they are unreliable). Indeed in Sudan, ethnography might be preferable, but then again you cannot do participant-observation for the whole of Sudan. It is a very big place!

So, your final answer...

If programs are to target vulnerable groups, then the state and the NGO community need to be able to “see” these groups as groups. We need to lobby and argue for better, more thorough statistics! We need to be able to see what’s going on if we want to get to the roots of problems. And that I am afraid, requires us to see tribes. 

Perhaps then we can all stop saying: “That, in itself, is interesting.” (Although I am sure there will be other opportunities to bring out the mantra).

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