Rwandan Government ‘altered’ UK consultancy’s poverty figures

16 August 2019 6 min. read
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A UK-based consultancy specialising on international development research has found itself at the centre of a new storm surrounding the reliability of a survey it performed for the Rwandan Government. The results of the poll released in 2015 suggested poverty in the country fell by 6%, however resurfacing allegations argue Oxford Policy Management’s findings were tampered with to favour the Kagame regime.

Oxford Policy Management is an international development consulting firm headquartered in Oxford, which hosts over 350 staff across its global network of offices. The firm aims to help low and middle-income countries achieve growth and reduce poverty and disadvantage through public policy reform. As a result, the company specialises in research for donor organisations such as UNICEF and the World Bank, as well as governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) focusing on areas such as economic development, health, education, climate change and social welfare.

Due to this reputation, the Rwandan Government has been a high-profile client of Oxford Policy Management for some time. Strongman President Paul Kagame has made the reduction of poverty a keystone policy since he first took up the nation’s leadership in 2000. Since Kagame remains keen to convince the public that his regime is still prioritising the matter – as infant mortality has halved and access to education and healthcare has soared on his watch – hiring a consultancy to procure figures which support this makes a lot of sense.

Rwandan Government altered UK consultancys poverty figures

Having executed three previous Integrated Household Living Conditions Survey (EICV) runs without event, though, Oxford Policy Management’s fourth outing in the role has proven a continued talking point in the five years since its publication. Measuring things like staple foods, caloric consumption and incomes of Rwandans, the release of EICV4 in September 2015 purported to show that the poverty rate in Rwanda fell by 6% between 2011 and 2014, hitting 39%. However, while these claims seemed to fit with previous trends, a number of sources have since claimed the findings have been doctored to suit the Kagame Government.

The Rwandan Government first faced accusations of manipulating its poverty data when a report by France 24 cited sources who claimed changes in the way poverty was measured disguised a rise of 6%. According to France 24‘s sources, the changes were made by the Rwandan government after the survey was complete, while Oxford Policy Management were said to have disagreed with the proposed alterations, but were unable to change anything after the data was handed over to Rwanda. Critics claimed the subtle changes distorted comparisons between 2011 and 2014 due to the shifting definition of poverty.

The Rwandan Government strongly denied the report, while Oxford Policy Management declined to comment, on the basis of client confidentiality. The news divided opinion at the World Bank, meanwhile, and though the country office officially backed Rwanda’s findings, five World Bank staff sent a letter to the organisation’s senior leadership, sounding the alarm on the report. The note warned Jim Yong Kim, then World Bank President, that the development pointed to “potentially serious reputational risks for the Bank if its Rwanda operations continue in the current trajectory.”

The World Bank has committed more than $4 billion to the country since the 1994 genocide and championed huge structural reforms in sectors including health, education and agriculture. Thanks in no small part to this commitment, the East African nation has attracted heavy investment from China and Australia, as well as from other countries within Africa, and become a technology hub. However, the idea that World Bank may have aided the Government in making Rwanda a playground for wealthy investors, while ignoring the nation’s failures to tackle poverty, would undoubtedly be a blow to its public standing.

Revived allegations

Eventually, the furore died down again, but four years later, a new report from the Financial Times has revived the controversy. An anonymous source echoed previous allegations that Oxford Policy Management was hired to complete the poverty analysis but their result, that poverty had increased by 6%, was rejected by the Rwandan government. This time, however, the source added they suspected there were political motivations behind the alleged tampering.

The Financial Times reported that the unnamed source said after weeks of discussion regarding Rwanda’s proposed new methodology, Oxford Policy Management reportedly ended its contract and did not sign off the final report. The changes apparently occurred because "with the constitutional referendum approaching that December” officials had come under mounting pressure to show continued progress on the Government’s part, and convinced in no uncertain terms that there was “no way an undesirable increase in poverty could be tolerated.”

The referendum in question allowed Kagame to extend his term as President until 2017, when he was re-elected with a reported 99% of the vote. Since then, the country has cracked down on opposition figures, including Diane Rwigara, who was jailed for 12 months after she challenged Kagame for the Presidency in 2017 – a move that saw her barred from the ballot.

Pro-Government Rwandan paper the New Times has been quick to dismiss the Financial Times’ report as "fantasy", with the privately owned publication stating the idea the figures were altered ahead of the referendum as "childish." The paper added, "FT doesn’t do itself much justice when it relies on Rwandan dissidents and others very well known for their anti-Rwanda position as its trusted sources."

The World Bank meanwhile continued to play down the matter. When the Financial Times asked the institution about Oxford Policy Management’s alleged concern over the reliability of the poverty data, a statement responded that the World Bank was “aware of the discussions [between OPM and NISR in 2015] but was not privy to the deliberations between the government and its consultant.”