A couple of months ago I sat down in the bathroom at a comedy event and looked at a poster promoting the works of a large international charity. The poster was dominated by a photograph of a smiling child, but underneath were the words “In Kenya – where nearly two in every five kids won’t reach their 5th birthdays – clean water and toilets are life-savers”. I can’t claim an encyclopaedic knowledge of under five mortality rates in African nations, but that seemed really, really high. Kenya is actually quite a bit better off economically than a lot of countries in the region – it has less conflict, less poverty and better health services than many of its neighbours. So I did a quick google on my phone and came up with the UNICEF and World Bank figures, which are both freely available online.
According to the World Bank, which uses the same data as other UN Agencies, the estimated under 5 mortality rate in Kenya is 71 deaths per 1,000 live births, which works out to one in 14, a far cry from “nearly two in five”. Kenya is ranked 35th in the world, behind dozens of other African countries and countries that are heavily conflict affected like Afghanistan. Angola leads the world with 167 per 1,000 live births, equivalent to one in six, still far below the charity’s statistic. (For comparison, high income European countries have a rate around 2 per 1,000 or one in five hundred.)
That such a high profile charity made such an astonishingly inaccurate claim bothers me for a number of reasons. Firstly, how on earth did that make it onto a poster? Does the communications team at this charity have so little background in health and so little experience in African countries that nobody thought that sounded a little high? Secondly, what does a claim like this say about the role of data in charity? Does the average Australian who sees that poster believe that Kenya (of all places) is a place of such endless desperation that it seems credible that near enough to every third child born there dies before turning five? If not, are we so used to seeing figures like this thrown around that we don’t even stop to consider what they mean in practical terms? Either way, something is very wrong here, and not with Kenya.