‘Lies, damn lies and statistics’

By Leila Loupis, communications manager, Education for All Global Monitoring Report

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When CamfedUK, a British NGO, posted on Twitter this message from our ‘Education Counts’ exhibition, it was retweeted so often that it made Twitter’s homepage.

‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’ – one of Mark Twain’s favourite lines, even if he didn’t coin it himself – may not have been heard much at this year’s inaugural World Statistics Day on Wednesday. But the many events held to mark the day (parties, even) seem to have raised a few eyebrows and spurred some to bring out their best statisticians’ jokes.

Here at the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, we don’t need a statistics day to appreciate the importance of rigorous data and indicators. Countries need accurate data to plan their education systems effectively and distribute financing fairly. Over the past two years, the Global Monitoring Report has also been highlighting the importance of breaking down national data to measure education inequalities within countries and identify groups that are being marginalized.

These are often uncomfortable political truths – in the 2010 Report, our Deprivation and Marginalization in Education data set starkly revealed that the poor, those in rural areas and girls are being left behind by many education systems. ‘Tackling inequality’ was the dominant theme of last month’s UN Millennium Development Goals summit in New York. But inequality can only be tackled with the help of statistics that show who exactly is getting left behind, and where and how they can be reached.

Statistics are also a powerful weapon in holding national authorities and the international community to account. The release this week by UNFPA, the UN population agency, of its State of World Population report provided a striking example. This year’s report focuses on the effect of conflict and protracted humanitarian emergencies on women and girls. In many conflicts, the worst cases of violence and sexual abuse are perpetrated against the most vulnerable – and are going unpunished. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, 300 people were raped in July and August alone, and more than 15,000 were raped last year. Our next Global Monitoring Report, which focuses on education and conflict and will be released in February 2011, will examine the extent of sexual violence in conflict, its long-term effects on education and the need to put an end to impunity for the aggressors.

Those of us who work in development communications tend to have a love/hate relationship with statistics. They can be our biggest nightmare, as we struggle to translate complex statistical terms into language that the general public can understand. On the other hand, they are our biggest ally. Clear, striking data can be the best way to get a message across to a wide audience. This week, one of the statistics from the UNESCO/GMR ‘Education Counts’ exhibition made it into the realm of Twitter. A British non-governmental organization, CamfedUK, sparked a retweet of this message: ‘All poor children could be sent to school for $16 billion – ½ of what Americans & Europeans spend on ice cream annually ~ UNESCO’ and it was retweeted so often that it made it onto Twitter’s homepage. (For those of you who are feeling old right now, a ‘retweet’ is like forwarding a message to your contacts. If you don’t know what Twitter is, then you are beyond my help.)

So, belatedly, happy World Statistics Day! For a lighter take on the event, I recommend this article in The Irish Times.


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