Is the government of Rwanda massaging statistics on growth and poverty reduction?

This is from the latest installment in the debate over whether Rwanda’s official statistics on economic growth and poverty reduction can be believed:

All poverty lines yield similar trends when used consistently over time, indicating that poverty increased between 5% and 7% points between 2010 and 2014. All changes are statistically significant at the 5% level.

It should be noted that our results differ from those obtained by simply updating the poverty line for inflation using CPI data, as was done by NISR in their 2016 trend report (NISR, 2016). In principle, if the data are of good quality and sufficiently disaggregated, both methods should be equivalent and should not yield significantly different results. This therefore raises questions about the quality / reliability of official CPI data, and/or the quality of price data collected by the EICV. In either case, this would undermine our ability to correctly estimate poverty levels in Rwanda. The discrepancies found here should invite us to more closely scrutinize official statistics coming out of the Rwandan statistical office. GDP growth figures appear to be incompatible with the findings of the EICV survey, given than agriculture still accounts for about one third of GDP and two thirds of the labour force.

More on this here.

The idea that Rwanda is growing without reducing poverty is concerning because it means that the implicit bargain inherent in the country’s political economy — growth in exchange for controlled political development — is not working. It is also likely that the benefits of the country’s recent impressive economic performance are accruing to only a few people, perhaps along ethnic lines. That, again, would be a source of serious concern.

If these data are to be believed, one wonders if Paul Kagame’s refusal to step down is informed by an understanding that the implicit bargain might not hold if he steps down because it was all a mirage to begin with.

More generally, what this means is that Rwanda is developing like any other poor country in which the initial beginnings of rapid growth will be accompanied by rising inequality. The singular problem for Rwanda, of course, is that its history and political economy mean that following this trajectory comes with serious risks to continued political stability.

Where do the poor live, and how do we make them become middle class?

The Economist reports:

“WHERE do the world’s poor live? The obvious answer: in poor countries. But in a recent series of articles Andy Sumner of Britain’s Institute of Development Studies showed that the obvious answer is wrong. Four-fifths of those surviving on less than $2 a day, he found, live in middle-income countries with a gross national income per head of between $1,000 and $12,500, not poor ones. His finding reflects the fact that a long but inequitable period of economic growth has lifted many developing countries into middle-income status but left a minority of their populations mired in poverty. Since the countries involved include giants like China and India, even a minority amounts to a very large number of people. That matters because middle-income countries can afford to help their own poor.”

The article raises important issues that inform the debate on how to tackle problems of poverty and underdevelopment – is it all about politics & governance or all about economic expansion? The answer, of course is that it is a moderate mix of both.

But since political realities often force governments to concentrate on one or the other, a responsible answer is that it is all context-dependent; some places need strong economic expansion first, before political reforms can be anchored in society. In others, political change should be top of the checklist.

The Botswanas and Singapores of this world are lucky in that their leaders were smart enough to know what their countries needed and pursued it with singular ambition, despite the unavoidable mess that came with the choices they made.

This of course goes against the received wisdom among academics (me included) who believe in the strong power of the right types of (liberal, in the classical sense) institutions to put countries on the path to becoming Denmark. The problem with this approach is that it does not tell us how to compress the more than 600 years that transpired between the Magna Carta and the voting reform legislations in England in the latter part of the 19th century. Lest we forget, England (which is every scholar’s favorite source of empirical conceptualization of institutional development) has not always had good institutions.

Institutions take a lot of time to build. A lot more time than the average human life span.

So the question still stands: How do we get the most number of people out of poverty in the least amount of time with the least harm to their political and human rights?

More on this here.

On Industrial Policy (In which I concur with Blattman 1001%)

I have made the case before here, here and here.

For more here’s Blattman, commenting on Industrial policy:

“You can’t pick winners” is the knee-jerk retort to the mention of anything that even rhymes with industrial policy. I would call it the triumph of ideology over evidence, except that even “ideology” feels like a generous term. Lazy thinking might be a more accurate description. Some have given the question a great deal of thought, but most have not.

I’m not suggesting that the paper above has the right answer (odds are, like most papers, it does not). I’m also not suggesting that governments can pick winners (probably they can’t). Nor am I forgetting that industrial policy is easily politicized and distorted (as surely it is). So what am I talking about?

More on this here.