Numbers That Mean Nothing



Numbers could mean a lot when they are used in their right place. But they mean nothing in the wrong places. The case with popular economic growth figures in Ethiopia largely goes with the latter. Much as it is overused, the 11pc GDP growth figure, for instance, has lost its meaning. The case gets even worse when one analyses the numbers in the political scene, including the 100pc election victory by EPRDF.


Research relies on numbers. But that does not necessarily mean that everything that adds up to any quantity can be qualified as a reliable number.

There are certain abstractions we cannot express in numbers. Some thoughts and ideas can only be described by using comparative adjectives. Certain figures are used in our daily lives not because they express any meaning at all, but just because we make assumptions, the truth of which we never question. Take the case of advertisements of brews.

The commercials warn the general public that such and such brand of bottled or draft beer is special and are not recommended to be consumed by young people below the age of 18. Let us leave the “speciality” of the brand aside and ask why the age 18? Of course, only medical experts can authentically explain why. But, does the factory ever worry to explain why it settled at that number, if it ever knew why in the first place?

Do numbers tell the truth or can they be manipulated by whoever has the power and the means?

If a student takes a test to be corrected out of 50, she can achieve anything, but not more than the full mark 50. Can he tell his mother that he got 60 out of 50?

Yes, he can if this mother is not aware of what it means to get 60 out of 50. This could also be true if she does not know anything about comparative qualifications.

Extend that to electoral vote counting and assessments in some countries. In any fair and democratic election, wherein millions of people are involved, 100pc victory is possible simply because those in charge of the election are pressed to say that as a possibility, whether or not the world grins with a sarcastic smile and a wink of the eye.

So numbers can be easily manipulated and made to take their course. There are other numbers that seem to be handy. Take the number 11 for instance. When we were students, we used that number as a nickname for our friends who, like me, walked all the way to and from school simply because we could not afford the 15 cent bus ticket. We used to hate that figure. These days, however, that double digit number is used very often to compare our wealth of one year as better than our wealth of the previous year. The nickname is gross domestic product (GDP) annual growth.

Are we better off this year than the previous year?

For all intents and purposes, we have grown poorer than the previous years, ever since these double digit figures have been coined and tagged to our GDP’s yearly growth. But that does not mean that the more prosperous have not changed much. They are getting better slices of the national cake.

What about words?

Oh, yes! I have not forgotten them. Words come by just like that. Whoever cares what they really mean gets lost. Take words, such as “renaissance” or “good governance”.

When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financing agencies want to give loans or grants, they attach obligations, These include creating awareness among the community about such problems as child abuse, women’s circumcision, population control and community participation in planning the destiny of the country.

Those obligations and additions are these days skipped and the words “nepotism”, “favouritism” and “unlawful ways of entitling oneself” are in gross used to label any mess up and political failure, including peaceful protests against the administration.

And therefore, with due respect Aster Mammo, minister of Public Service & Human Development with a deputy prime ministerial portfolio, gathered her guts to admit that the chaotic situations resulted from the “lack of good governance” and “corruption”, whatever these words mean. That was clearly an attempt to cap the ruling party’s failure.

Mundane politicians, regardless of the titles they carry with them, throw the cause of the protest on the rather abstract words so that opposition parties can be blamed. Tagging blame is one thing. But giving random orders to the security forces to kill innocent law-abiding students is another matter altogether.

The deliberate appointment for want of a better term has manifested itself when the members of the parliament all convened, not to make any inquiry, but to warm up their God-given seats and wait for the chance to raise their hands to show  allegiance.

So, then, do numbers and words mean anything under such circumstances?

God save us from the sin of telling lies. The other day, I heard a school master bluntly denying what his teachers were reporting about the scarcity of teaching materials. As the teachers sat in consternation with arms akimbo, he instantaneously gave a blunt answer to the reporter who had asked him why.

It may be necessary at times to tell lies in politics. But that would be a serious crime to commit by a school master in whose hands we entrust our children to bring them up to be truthful and honest.



By Girma Feyissa


Published on Feb 08,2016 [ Vol 16 ,No 823]


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