It seems to me that the world would be a better place if we had a non-profit organization that looked after abused numbers.
Increasingly, numbers are being abused by profit-soaked multinational corporations, hubris-filled newspaper chains, self-serving government agencies, and our-cause-is-the-most-pitiful relief agencies.
Corporate leaders have been going to jail for overinflating profits figures. Newspapers have been found to be stealing funds from advertisers by overstating circulation figures. Government officials take credit for good figures and blame everyone else for poor figures. And relief organizations have been caught with their hands in the pockets of other people's figures.
Recently, some organization decided that China's growth had been overstated by 40%. Perhaps next we'll hear the same about their population. One day one billion is right, the next day one billion is wrong.
Who comes to the defense of the amoral number?
Recently, a BBC interviewer did. A representative from Unicef came on the radio to talk about the plight of the 1.5 million children in a country starting with "S." Immediately, the interviewer pounced on the abused number: where did "1.5 million" come from?
After some back and forth between the two, it seemed to me that this is the situation: In the last year (2007), the number was one million. For the new year (2008), Unicef would be promoting one point five million.
As the interviewer tried to pin down how "1.5 million" had been derived, explanations from the Unicef rep included the following:
-- 50% of the country's population are children, defined as under 18 years old. (20% are under 5 or younger.)
-- Unicef had people whose job it was to count refugees fleeing the capital city. They counted around 200,000.
-- Relief agencies get together to compare their numbers, and then come up with an overall number.
-- People are scattered all over this country, and so it is hard to know the actual number.
The problem for me is the increase. This indicates that the relief agencies are failingl if they were successful, the numbers would decrease.
Instead of supporting relief agencies with huge marketing budgets, I support the self-employed relief worker. One of them works with his family in Liberia. He and his team of indigenous Health Ambassadors teach villagers the basics of sanitation and health: latrines, wells, inoculations, and avoiding the witch doctor.
The biggest killer of children in Africa? Diarrhea, and the mistaken belief that it is cured by withholding liquids from the child. David Waynes doesn't spend his days counting fleeing families; he's busy saving lives to make Africa a better place where children live longer.