At the end of 2018, the RSS released our annual 'Statistics of the Year'. This was the second year of this exercise, to outline statistics from the year which we thought somehow captured the spirit of the year or told an overlooked story. Anyone can nominate a statistic to us, and our judging panel pick the strongest entries. Our aim is to engage the public with statistics, and it has largely been a successful exercise in generating public interest.
One of our 'highly commended' statistics was 9.5 - which was the percentage point reduction in worldwide ‘absolute poverty’ during the ten year period, 2008-18 based on World Bank figures defining absolute poverty as below US$1.90 a day.
We are aware that there is an important and live debate about the poverty measures. Some of the discussions are summarised in this recent Vox piece and there was also a debate hosted at the World Bank featuring a critique of their work by the economist Sanjay Reddy.
The RSS welcomes that this debate is going on - poverty statistics are a very important measure of how the world is doing, and if they can be improved that is a very worthwhile exercise. We are a relatively decentralised and member-led body, but centrally we are raising awareness of the debate within our own organisation (in particular to our International Development Section, and Significance magazine) in the hope that it will encourage RSS fellows with expertise to participate.
Given their contested nature, we have received some criticism for reporting the World Bank figures. When we look at entries for Statistic of the Year we consider the credibility of their source, and we took the World Bank as a credible source, and so that was good enough for our purposes.
We recognise there are risks in the way we select Statistics of the Year. We’re dependent on the entries we receive and we don’t then conduct any deep methodological checking or endorsement. However, we do strive to use material sourced from credible bodies, in a bid to connect the public to statistics, and the selected figures have to satisfy both our Statistical Ambassadors and our judging panel. One lesson might be that we should be clearer in our announcements that we have done basic checks on the statistics, but we have not any deep methodological review and recognise when statistics are contested.
The Society looks forward to seeing the debate about how to improve poverty metrics, and encourages RSS fellows with an interest to participate in these discussions. We will also be opening our nominations for 2019's Statistics of the Year, and will welcome nominations on this theme using alternative methods to that of the World Bank.