For the love of numbers – The Business Standard
September 25, 2022
We are made to love numbers.
We are frequently told about the country’s GDP growth, remittance numbers, export numbers, import numbers, records being broken, and so many other numbers.
The numbers are fed to us through press conferences, television reports, newspaper headlines, or when scrolling through social media. There is usually little to no breaking down of these figures, putting them into meaningful context.
Take, for example, the country’s GDP growth. It is often presented in percentages without an explanation of how they are calculated and without any critique. Take another example: the discrepancy between how inflation numbers are calculated and what people face in their everyday lives.
For those wondering, growth has been between 5-8% per year except 2020, due to the pandemic, and the GDP stands at over $324 billion, but anyone familiar with Bangladesh will know that there is a big grey-black market that operates in the country, which is not counted in the official figures. Perhaps we should think beyond numbers, and part of that must mean trying to understand why they are constantly being shared with us.
Reporting numbers without an in-depth analysis of what they mean, the numbers themselves serve an important purpose: because it is hard to argue against numbers, they give hope and seek to produce nationalist pride. They do not lie after all. Upward trends indicate things are improving, more of something is equated with growth. Growth is good.
Growth is a measurable indicator of progress; progress and development have been intertwined as key objectives of successive governments since the country’s liberation.
Bangladesh is not alone in its deployment of numbers to mobilise nationalism and placate the population with the illusion of hope that they too will benefit from a rise in numbers. If numbers are produced to highlight particular trajectories, perhaps they also stop other imaginaries by presenting a narrative of success instead of one of complexity that requires creative solutions.
Bangladesh’s liberation after a devastating war following years of underinvestment and resource extraction left it in a dire situation, where all successes needed to be celebrated: they served to justify the collective struggle undertaken to gain independence.
During this period, numbers were important to demonstrate a concrete movement away from the disastrous situation at the moment when the country declared itself free, towards an imagined future where it was no longer a basket case, and numbers helped prove this.
In the intervening years, donor-funded projects, in conjunction with various state actors, found it easy to communicate their actions through numbers. They present a certain set of facts without much scope for discussion, and are designed to highlight more favourable outcomes.
This does not mean that there is no critical engagement with the numbers themselves by those reporting them. GDP growth numbers have often come under scrutiny, particularly as various think-tanks, donor organisations, and other bodies at times questioned the figures that were presented.
Why figures of annual GDP growth are presented without annual wealth distribution, or how the US Dollar was artificially kept low and has inflated GDP, are conversations that complicate a celebratory narrative. Similarly, school enrolment numbers do little to explain the state of education in the country, as enrolment numbers do not correlate to education quality, skills acquired, or improved opportunities.
Numbers that suggest that the hegemonic metanarrative needs criticism include the fact that 66% of university graduates are currently unemployed and that 46% of employers cite a lack of skilled labourers as the reason for a worker shortage in professional positions. Instead of celebrating numbers with gaps in the picture, looking beyond them can be helpful.
Numbers are not plucked from mid-air, or so we would hope. They are painstakingly gathered, processed, and then analysed in the hopes that they will fit into a particular narrative.
For post-colonial countries in particular, numbers provide a medium through which nations can compete against each other, and sometimes they are also a medium through which the powers that subjugate them can demonstrate the ‘progress’ that they have made since independence.
In an era when military warfare is no longer the primary mode through which national pride is stoked, economic growth figures have taken the place of military battles. When national GDPs are put into a league table format, countries and their citizens are put into direct competition against each other, which centres growth and wealth as the primary indicator.
The decontextualized and easily digestible nature in which numbers are presented allows the celebration of the hegemonic metanarrative while obscuring complexities and failures. When Bangladesh’s GDP recently overtook Pakistan’s, there were several articles written in both countries either celebrating another victory or commiserating another defeat.
In Bangladesh, all the commentary took a triumphant tone, evoking the war of liberation and explaining how the sacrifices made by those who fought in the war allowed subsequent generations to fulfil a potential that would otherwise have been denied. Though this is true, it is also important to remember that the road to liberation started not only with economic issues, but also with linguistic, political, and ethnic subjugation. However, it is easier to quantify changes in the economy than the other issues.
This does not mean the other issues are not already at least partially quantified, whether through maternal, child and infant mortality rates put into tables, ranked school enrolment rates, and figures of female employment, which are compared as though they were scorecards.
Sports is another arena where nations directly compete against each other to showcase their superiority, and a proxy for national superiority serves as a clearer example of what is happening in other arenas.
By turning everything into a competition, the focus becomes about winning, which provides momentary jubilation and collective celebration, a sense of pride in being a part of achieving something even if as individuals we played no direct part in it: this is a symptom of ethno-nationalism.
The hype of success also aims to stop us from questioning the road that led there, and it is a hindrance to imagining alternatives because it supports the metanarrative that the current road is working. Why would anyone want to change the economic system if there has been continued economic GDP growth for the past 10 years?
This does not mean that people always consume information uncritically. It is very common to hear members of the public make fun of published statistics, pointing out the disconnect between official pronouncements and people’s lived reality, questioning the veracity of the numbers because data manipulation is not unheard of, and generally being very wary of how we are being steered into thinking in certain directions and away from others.
This kind of scepticism is the first step towards scrutiny, which can lead to accountability but often fails to do so due to a lack of access to the information needed to build a comprehensive understanding of the situation. Being provided snippets of celebratory information taken primarily from press releases also hampers accountability, since a lack of scrutiny amplifies a particular narrative without giving space for alternatives to take root.
Holding decision makers, resource allocators, and other people in positions of power accountable for their actions requires a move away from celebrating and towards asking what the cost of success is, whether it was worth it, and if there were alternative ways to achieve a similar but better result. Countries face tough decisions on what to prioritise due to limited resources, and in underdeveloped countries whose resources have been looted by former colonial masters, this problem is even more acute.
These priorities need to be set by each country’s population rather than dictated from the outside, and ideally health, education, and social welfare will rank highly. In trying to prepare a balanced path forward it may be time to think about equality over growth, and to do what we need to think beyond numbers and statistics.
Sri Lanka perhaps serves as an ominous warning. A country which for a decade boasted high growth rates backed by loans which they were ultimately unable to pay back due to years of economic mismanagement at all levels, with the final nail in the coffin being a depleted foreign exchange reserve making the country bankrupt.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.
Love / random numbers / Mathematical beauty
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