When numbers are inconvenient

Muthi Nhlema, Water for People – Malawi (photo courtesy of Water for People)

Standard deviations, averages, percentiles and decimal points – numbers are an indispensable part of our everyday life. They help us know what time zone we are in while recuperating from a migraine-inducing jet-lag. They help us decipher the mysteries of the cosmos, bringing us ever closer to understanding the priceless value of the only life we have on this blue planet we call home. But, and most importantly, numbers help unravel the secrets of the world, painting a picture and telling a story. Numbers, in a sense, belong to the realm of the artistic rather than the scientific that has long had a monopoly over their utility.

I have to get up from behind the safety of my desk and that ever trustworthy companion, Microsoft Excel, and keep fiercely telling the inconvenient stories the numbers are telling me and hope, even beyond hope, that someone, someday will listen and take real action.

Because, in and of themselves, numbers are meaningless – it is the story they tell, the picture they paint, that matters. As shameless number cruncher, I have learnt it is very easy to fall into the “nerd-zone” and obsess over accuracy, variances and validations, all of which are important, but they are never the point. I have had to learn to listen to the numbers and the story they are trying to communicate, no matter how uncomfortable that story may be. In the times I have shared these numbers, in their various shapes and sizes and dimensions, I have seen almost the full spectrum of human reactions: surprise, denial, indifference, skepticism, hope, vindication and intense reflection. “Almost” is quite apt in this case because of all the reactions I have yet seen, powerlessness is the most uncommon.

As I reflect on this, sitting in an uncomfortable seat in an uncomfortable airport (which shall not be named), surrounded by frustrated fellow travelers all daydreaming about their return home, the memories of the Rural Water Supply Network Conference in Abidjan are still fresh in my mind. Besides presenting my paper “Bigger Data” (originally titled “Data Porn” to the disapproval of the review panel) which shared my experience collecting, analyzing and sharing water supply data in Malawi, I managed to session-hop from one topic to next, darting from room to room like a ball in an arcade game, maximizing the time availed to me. After 4 days of talk-shopping, branded conference bags, scrumptious tea-breaks and the unrelenting Ivorian humidity all in the name of “saving the world”, one is left with obvious questions: what have I learnt? What stood out for me? What is my take-home?

Why isn’t this plane taking off?

There were several things I could have easily “taken-home” from the conference this year: technological innovations that are solving age-old problems (for a fee), new professional relationships that I hope won’t become professional one-night stands the moment we change time-zones; and promises of collaboration that I hope won’t be forgotten. Either of these would have been a worthy “take-home” candidate, but what stood out for me was something different, something that peppered many of the sessions I attended, often getting lost in the haze of programmatic ambiguity and scientific rigor. That something was special interests and their influence on the flow of information required to administer development aid.

As the plane finally jolts to life, swerving homeward bound, I reflect back to a moment during my presentation: I highlighted some key lessons from the Malawian experience, among them being: don’t underestimate special interests; a lesson I deliberately left to the end for dramatic effect. To illustrate what I meant by this point, I gave an anecdote of a rural district, where I facilitated a mapping exercise, which, based on district records, had a little over 1000 water supply points catering for the entire population. Following completion of the mapping exercise, it turned out the district had well over 3000 water supply points, which was more than what was needed, even with a 35% non-functionality rate. Excited by this discovery, I reached out to my peers from other NGOs to share the data as a way of triggering discussion around how we could improve the district council’s investment planning and resource allocation processes.

The data, surprisingly, didn’t surprise my peers; later revealing that another consultant had been flown in several years ago to conduct a similar study, finding the same results. Sadly, however, the political establishment of the time made sure the report never saw the light of day, burying it from scrutiny. Why? Because water is a political asset that captures votes; and mapping results, such as these, could potentially re-direct development aid and/or foreign investment away from the district. Less money – less votes!

The data was considered, as one of my peers put it, “inconvenient”.

After sharing this anecdote with the session participants at the conference, I had expected a heated discussion during Q&A around how to delink political influence from the administration of development aid.

No questions were asked and no such discussion was had. Not even a quiver of warmth to accompany the Ivorian swelter, just the bone-biting chill of passing acknowledgement. Hopping from one session to the next, hearing one story after another, the familiar phenomenon of political self-interest, and its control on the flow of information and resources, received a mere passing acknowledgement without a concerted focus to explore even an inkling of a solution, even if it was to suggest there weren’t any. The few who spared me their attention, away from the intrigue of business models and the pure bliss of electrical resistivity, to talk about special interests, only later gave me a look I had seen many times back home, but mistook for indifference instead of what it truly was: powerlessness.

Powerlessness: a deep sense that, even with all our post-grad education, with all our fancy advocacy campaigns and convoluted theories of change, special interests remained the one problem that left everyone stumped, making powerless even the most vocal of activists.

One wonders if the resolve of special interests, be they political or otherwise, to cling to power at any cost is stronger than all our impassioned calls to action put together. Though, it goes without saying, the levels of influence are contextually different, but the impact of special interests, if left unchecked, is undeniable. It’s powerful enough to have a rare breed of committed government officers transferred to the middle of nowhere; their crime: doing their jobs. It’s powerful enough to capture and re-direct development aid to deepen the roots of political strongholds without fear of repercussions. It’s even powerful enough to block the flow of inconvenient information from getting to where it is needed most.

Now what was I, a number cruncher standing on his soapbox, going to do about it?
The whirring of the landing gear distracts me from my thoughts, only briefly. I stare down at the Malawian landscape that is fast approaching; there are sprouts of green broken by the sheens of water-washed corrugated iron sheets. The people are ants from this vantage point, and soon I shall be one with those ants. My mild wonder at the magic of flight is brushed away by that nagging question: what was I going to do about it?

How was I, with only numbers as my allies, going to make sure information gets to where it needed and is used to effect better decisions in Malawi’s water sector?

Frankly, my dears, I haven’t the foggiest.

However, that said, as a number cruncher, it is clearer in my mind, now more than ever, that I shouldn’t give in to this blanket of powerlessness no matter how comforting an excuse it gives me. I have to get up from behind the safety of my desk and that ever trustworthy companion, Microsoft Excel, and keep fiercely telling the inconvenient stories the numbers are telling me and hope, even beyond hope, that someone, someday will listen and take real action.

Judging from the scale of the challenge, it’s a shot in the dark, but someone has to try, dammit!