Playing the Numbers Game to Discredit the Numbers Game

Rasna Warah has an opinion piece in today’s Daily Nation on the new census figures for Kibera–something I blogged about last week. A regular critic of development projects, Warah argues the inflated population figures traditionally given for Kibera most likely were created and promoted by the UN and other NGOs to serve their own interests. She writes:

The more likely scenario is that, in the absence of authoritative statistics, the population figure for Kibera was entirely made up to suit the interests of particular groups. And because no one publicly challenged the figures, a lie became the truth.

Seems reasonable. I mostly agree.

But, Warah does something that I forgot to mention in my earlier critique of the discussion surrounding the new census figures. With all this effort to get the numbers right when it comes to Kibera, I see the beginnings of a new numbers myth forming…

Warah cites the original article to note that “there are between 6,000 and 15,000 NGOs working in Kibera alone.” The passage she is referring to is from here:

According to Mr. Tom Aosa, the leader of Community Based Organisations, there are between 6,000 and 15,000 community-based organisations working in Kibera. That is one charitable organisation for every 15 residents of Kibera. Throw in an estimated 2,000 governmental organisations, and you get a rough idea exactly how the billions of shillings pumped into “the biggest slum in the world” are spent.

Tom Aosa is the chairman of National Council of Community-Based Organizations, which serves as an umbrella group for CBOs in Kenya. From their website, it’s unclear to me if NCCBO is officially a part of the Kenyan government, but a few news articles refer to them as a civil society organization.

What I find troubling is that Aosa provides no evidence to support his claim that between 6,000 and 15,000 CBOs exist in Kibera. NCCBO’s website states they have a total of 15,000 CBO members spread across 59 constituencies in Kenya. So either Aosa is making a calculated projection based on the percentage of member groups in relation to non-member groups, or he is making a broad projection based on mostly guesswork (considering his estimated range from 6,000 to 15,000 is so large, I would bet on this).

The only other estimation I’ve seen about the number of organizations in Kibera is from Christine Bodewes’ book Parish Transformation in Urban Slums: Voices of Kibera, Kenya. Here, Bodewes says there over 700 NGOs in Kibera. While it’s been 5 years since her book was published in 2005, there’s still quite a discrepancy between 700 and 6,000, let alone 15,000.

Also, I want to point out the slippage between Aosa’s estimation of CBOs to Warah’s statement about NGOs (and admittedly my use of Bodewes’s numbers of NGOs). CBOs and NGOs are not the same thing. Even if Aosa’s numbers are accurate, no one should think there are 15,000 Save the Chldrens or Amnesty Internationals in Kibera. I’ve know several CBOs that are just a few Kibera residents coming together to focus on something they care about. I know one CBO that is a handful of youth who want to start their own video production company. It’s also common for a CBO to be a group of mothers doing a merry-go-round, which is mostly people saving money and sharing their own resources, no matter how small.

In my opinion, these numbers about NGOs and CBOs in Kibera are just as suspect as the old population figures of Kibera. So let’s be careful before those numbers become the accepted talking point. Otherwise, we’ve just gone from overestimating the population of Kibera to overestimating the response.

Brian Ekdale is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. He studies global digital cultures.


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