Article by Justin Sandefur, originally published via the Center for Global Development (CGD) on September 28, 2018. 

When Tanzania’s president John Magufuli took office in 2015 he cancelled the independence day parade, curtailed international travel for his ministers, and began making impromptu visits to government offices to personally sack tardy civil servants. These penny-pinching gestures made Magufuli an international sensation with his own viral hashtag, #WhatWouldMagufuliDo, and earned him a 96 percent approval rating at home.

Almost three years later, Magufuli’s crackdown on waste has morphed into a broader authoritarian assault on civil society, the political opposition, and even foreign investors. Data suggest that both Magufuli’s popularity and Tanzania’s economic performance are faltering.

Faced with uncomfortable realities, Magufuli is now seeking to outlaw facts—and in particular fact-checking. Earlier this month Tanzania’s parliament passed an amendment to the statistics act, giving the government broad authority to set standards for independent data collection, and making it a criminal offence to publicly question official government statistics. One amendment states: “A person shall not disseminate or otherwise communicate to the public any statistical information which is intended to invalidate, distort, or discredit official statistics.”

Anyone doing so may be imprisoned for “not less than three years.”

Even as critics are jailed, the World Bank has signalled its continued support for Tanzania’s statistics office

Despite the crackdown on data and free debate, the World Bank recently proposed a $50 million aid package to support Tanzania’s National Bureau of Statistics. In addition to the money, the Bank also gives Tanzania’s statistics its official imprimatur. As economic historian Morten Jerven documented in detail in his 2013 book Poor Numbers, both the World Bank and the IMF routinely reproduce such dubious official statistics in their own international databases, which in turn are used to evaluate countries’ economic performance and determine creditworthiness.

Thus ordinary Tanzanians may soon encounter World Bank and IMF statistics about their country which are literally unquestionable, upon pain of criminal prosecution.

Recent events make clear this is not an idle threat.

Last November, an opposition Member of Parliament, Zitto Kabwe, gave a speech noting the decline in various economic indicators and questioning the Bank of Tanzania’s rosy GDP figures. He was promptly ordered to report to the police and detained.

Just last month, a new opinion poll showed President Magufuli’s approval rating has dropped by over 40 percentage points since the fanfare around his election. The government responded by sending a threatening letter to Aidan Eyakuze, director of the non-partisan organization Twaweza that had commissioned the poll, and confiscating his passport.

Under the new amendments, groups like Twaweza will be prohibited from collecting or disseminating independent data on critical development issues, such as whether children in school are able to read or which communities are experiencing hunger, without government clearance.

Bad data perpetuates the myth that authoritarian, “get things done” leaders like Tanzania’s Magufuli are good for economic development. The opposite is true. MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and coauthors estimate that democratization increases per capita GDP by about 20 percent in the long run. But in the short run, strongmen simply lie. Luis Martinez of the University of Chicago shows that when comparing official GDP statistics to economic activity measured by NASA’s satellite images of night-time lights, dictatorships appear to exaggerate economic growth by a factor of 1.15 to 1.3. As Martinez notes, these discrepancies may significantly distort our understanding of which countries have grown fastest and which policies have worked best in the twenty-first century.

A simple policy rule: if a government’s statistics cannot be questioned, they shouldn’t be trusted

By criminalizing truthful data reporting, Tanzania is following the playbook set by Greece and Argentina. Greece famously prosecuted its former chief statistician Andreas Georgiu for the crime of reporting accurate budget deficit numbers to the EU in 2010. Argentina similarly fired officials who refused to cooperate in fixing its official inflation numbers in the late 2000s, and fined an independent research group for producing a more accurate inflation estimate.

In 2013, the IMF finally took the extraordinary measure of censuring Argentina and refusing to accept its inflation numbers. Censure worked: in 2014 the series was revised and official inflation doubled, though it took another election and an overhaul of the statistics agency before Argentina’s data was accepted in Washington again. That’s a lesson worth considering in Tanzania’s case.

International organizations like the World Bank and IMF can claim that Tanzania’s repression of internal dissent is outside their mandates. But they don’t have to be gullible or aid in the repression.

Consider a simple policy rule: if a government’s statistics cannot be questioned, they shouldn’t be trusted. By that rule, the Bank and Fund would not report Tanzania’s numbers or accept them in determining creditworthiness—and they would immediately withdraw the offer of foreign aid to help Tanzania produce statistics its citizens cannot criticize.

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