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Introducing global development
Introducing global development

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5 Adopting a critical stance

In the previous section, you were encouraged to take a critical look at the concept of international development and to examine the ideas, assumptions and values that influence the actions and policies of those who undertake development.

Taking a critical stance is a requirement of academic study and research. It is an ability that is learnt and developed through practice. When thinking critically, you question, analyse, and challenge what you are reading and what you are being told. Does an argument have sufficient evidence? If so, of what kind? Is the conclusion consistent and reasoned?

A further key element of taking a critical stance is thinking reflexively. This involves being prepared to subject your own judgements to critical examination. It is important to recognise the role your own personal background and biases might play in your critical thinking. It is all too easy to interpret other people’s views in such a way that they reflect your own understanding and viewpoint. You seek confirmation of your thinking and may ignore contradictory interpretations. It is equally easy to prejudge what someone is saying and devalue or dismiss it because it does not make sense to you on your terms.

Now put on your critical hat and try out the below activity.

Activity 3: Being critical with data and statistics

Timing: Allow 25 minutes

Data takes many forms – numbers, words, measurements, observations. The collection, compilation, analysis, interpretation and presentation of data is crucial to social science research and to informing development practice. Data informs us of the number of people living in a city, the level of poverty in a country or the attitudes of a community towards a proposed new factory.

Statistics is that branch of mathematics that deals with numerical data. Raw numbers are converted into meaningful descriptions such as the percentage of children in a school who pass examinations, or the rate of increase of influenza infections in a city over the winter months. Statistics is also used to make inferences based on sampling a part of the population such as the overall literacy levels in a country.

The problem with statistics comes when they are accepted uncritically and seen as neutral and objective ‘facts’. Statistics are produced through processes of definition, evaluation and interpretation and so are never neutral. They are often interpreted inappropriately. For instance, a correlation between two sets of data identifies a possible relationship between them but does not prove causation (Sage Research Methods, 2017). Statistical analysis may show a correlation between a high cholesterol diet and heart disease but does not prove that one causes the other. Doing so needs further research.

The following activity asks you to select a statistic from a choice of three for each question. Note which figure you choose and whether the correct answer comes as a surprise or not. What do you think influenced your choice?

Gapminder created a quiz aimed at debunking our assumptions about the state of the world under the conditions of global development. Gapminder tested thousands of people to generate their own statistics on the extent to which people typically hold incorrect assumptions about this set of development issues. The statistics in the quiz below regarding how many people got each question wrong come from Gapminder’s findings (Gapminder, no date b).

a. 

Around 4%


b. 

Around 24%


c. 

Around 44%


The correct answer is a.

a. 

Yes, but 84% of people were wrong.

200 years ago, these economic activities made up much more than 5%, but that is not true today (World Bank, 2021). Poor countries won’t get rich from such exports. Makes you think, right?


a. 

Around 35%


b. 

Around 55%


c. 

Around 75%


The correct answer is c.

c. 

Yes, but 92% of people were wrong.

78% of countries have laws against sexual harassment at work (Tavares and Wodon, 2017). The problem is that these laws are not enforced.


a. 

Around 8%


b. 

Around 28%


c. 

Around 48%


The correct answer is a.

a. 

Yes, but 77% of people were wrong.

While the world is urbanising, most people still live in cities smaller than ten-million people (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2018). The media tends to focus more on megacities than on other urban areas. The abundance of images showing megacities also perpetuate this misconception.


a. 

Around 10%


b. 

Around 50%


c. 

Around 90%


The correct answer is c.

c. 

Yes, but 90% of people were wrong.

The global ocean is a heat trap, capturing most global warming (Rhein et al., 2013). You may find the sea’s temperature cold, but the world’s corals, fish, and polar bears would beg to differ. Imagine how much hotter it would be without healthy oceans.


a. 

Around 11%


b. 

Around 23%


c. 

Around 37%


The correct answer is a.

a. 

Yes, but 79% of people were wrong.

While it is impossible to calculate an exact figure, estimates for wasted children (6.9% in 2019; FAO et al., 2020) and extreme poverty (9.4% in 2020; FAO et al., 2020) are both lower than 11%.

Overestimating the size of a problem can be linked to feelings of sympathy around suffering, but it can often lead to bad policy. Fewer people go hungry than people think; there is hope that hunger can be ended.


a. 

Around 30%


b. 

Around 50%


c. 

Around 70%


The correct answer is c.

c. 

Yes, but 82% of people were wrong.

While preventable infectious diseases and parasites are still waterborne, the majority of people have access to safe drinking water (WHO, 2019). This could be increased further by managing local water resources.


a. 

Around 42%


b. 

Around 62%


c. 

Around 82%


The correct answer is c.

c. 

Yes, but 65% of people were wrong.

Fossil fuels are still the dominant source of energy; despite advances in the availability and use of renewable energy, fossil fuels constitute around 82% of global energy use (e.g. BP, 2020). There’s still a long way to go to cut harmful carbon emissions.


Discussion

What this quiz shows is that, when asked about statistics, many people make underestimates or overestimates. Choices may be influenced by media stories, the focus of social media exchanges, personal bias and assumptions. In some cases, such inaccuracy doesn’t matter. In other situations, it may lead to negative attitudes, fearfulness, or poor decision-making. Critical appraisal of statistical data is essential.