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Data for Development
The importance of collecting info
Q&A with James Muwonge

My name is James Muwonge. I work with Uganda Bureau of Statistics as a Director in Charge of Socioeconomic Surveys at the Bureau.

Tell us a little about yourself?

I'm a statistician working at the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. Currently, I'm the Director in charge of Socioeconomic Surveys. The Bureau of Statistics in Uganda is mandated to collect, produce and disseminate official statistics. A couple of decades ago, when the Bureau was established, it all started with a need to have routine, regular, and reliable statistics. Previously, statistics were not collected on a routine basis, because it's expensive. The national government could not fully fund these activities. The World Bank came in and supported the government to increase the frequency and the quantity of statistics that were being generated. There were so many policies and programs that couldn't be informed because there were still huge gaps in data. There was a need.

I began working with Talip Kilic in 2009. We started the panel survey program, a longitudinal study whereby we try to understand the changes, the dynamics, at the household level in Uganda, which we follow repeatedly or every year.

Why is it important to know statistics?

Statistics help you to know where progress has been made and where challenges still exist. It gives you an opportunity to measure and also be able to monitor over time what is happening in communities, in societies. Statistics play a central role in guiding decision making and providing guidance to planning at all stages and levels. From a national level up to the local level, we need the statistics. We provide official statistics to the government for planning. For example, we measure welfare by asking questions on consumption patterns of households, or individuals. What we produce as an output is a poverty population number. Through the household surveys, we have been able to know that in 2009, 24.5% of the population was living below the poverty line. In 2013, it was 19.7%.

Can you give some examples of how statistics you collect have been used?

We’ve learned that previously literacy levels were about 54%. Now they're close to 74%. The statistics from surveys are able to show us that, well, we have improved. The population has moved in terms of education literacy levels from point A to point B. This ties in so well with policies that the government has set up. In 1997, they introduced universal primary education. The gap between boys and girls enrolling in school was wide. Now, it is very close. The enrolment rates have also gone up above 80%. Surveys are directly providing some of the monitoring indicators that are informing the government in terms of where they are now and how much they have to do to get to universal levels.

Also, malaria prevalence has been quite high, about 30% percent of everyone has ever fallen sick. Starting in 2013, the government started distributing mosquito nets. We did a study on that. From the initial indications, the ownership of mosquito nets and usage is more than double what it was previously. They know that they have distributed mosquito nets, but what proportion still hasn't been reached? Are they children? Are they women? Who has benefited and who has lost out? The surveys are able to provide that information.

What kinds of challenges do you face when collecting data?

Uganda has 54 tribes, and so there are as many languages. There are about seven main languages that are spoken widely. It's a challenge that we've come to live with. When we are designing our surveys, we make sure that the teams have people who speak the local languages to collect data.

Of course, one of the challenges at the planning level is that surveys are expensive, and because they are expensive, these are sample surveys. We don't go to the entire population. We would very much like to provide indicators at the district level, but it requires a very large sample, which we can't afford. The other challenge we have is the rural areas, unlike in developed countries, don't have addresses. You just have to know the district you're going to. We have to know that geography so well because the village names are similar in different districts. You may find the same name in more than two, three districts. We always have to use guides to take us around.

James and Talip making their way through a busy urban area.

Another challenge is, in rural areas, you have to first of all get to know, to canvass, the entire village and make sure that you get to the list of everybody who is there. If you don't find them there and they don't have a telephone, you inevitably have to make another visit to the same household because not everyone has a cell phone. In urban areas, you are faced with a different set of challenges.

What do you enjoy about performing the surveys?

When you sit in an office, you don't get to see the different type of households and environments that people live in. Now, when you go out and interview and experience it, and when you come to write a report, you feel that you are actually trying to communicate the different environments and scenarios you saw in the field. I've almost visited all the districts in this country, and even during when we had insurgency, we would still go to those places. When you visit certain parts of the country and you get the results, you feel that you have made a contribution. You've communicated what you have collected from so many households that the teams have collected out there. Now, you're trying to inform policymakers that, well, this is the situation.

There was a survey we did related to health. We went out and found somebody who was ill, and we said, "It's better we take this child to a health facility." They said, "No, we don't have transport. We don't have money." We took them the health facility, they treated them, and we brought them back. The next time the team went, they called us health workers. We are not medical people. We just felt that these people needed one thing, a service to take them to a health facility. When you reach out and you find people in situations which are manageable, but for one reason or the other they cannot, we try to do the little we can and help them.

Do you think collecting this data is going to make a real difference?

Actually, collecting data and transforming it into information is something that will continue and it is going to, I believe, take center stage in the future. In 1997, in Uganda, there was no cell phone. Now, more than 60% have cell phones. They're using mobile money services to transfer resources to relatives and friends deep in rural areas. One may need to know how many people have access to this kind of service, and that is statistics. Where should I invest? Where is the health facility?

They're also proposing to use some of these mediums to reach out to the villages, to help expectant mothers. The levels at which technology has taken the country will inevitably demand certain information. We need to improve on the package and increase the use of this information. That's one of our strategies in the next five years, to make sure that we increase the use of information, the quality of information that we give out. In the future, I see the demand increasing to levels that will require statistical officers to reorient themselves to meeting those demands, and also encourage statistical officers maybe to partner with other agencies to provide all the information that's needed.

How does the environment of rural Uganda impact your work?

Uganda is interesting, we have the second largest lake in the world, which has islands. The only way to reach the islands is by small boats. Sitting in a boat for three hours, floating on water to reach an island is an experience that many can't afford. But because the sample has taken us there, we make sure that we collect that information. Also, when you go to some of the remote places, the car can only take you so far - there are no access roads. There are places where you get to the village and there's nothing you can eat, then you come back and miss supper because you find all the hotels and restaurants have closed. The important thing is collecting the information.

What kind of work do you do with Talip Kilic?

Talip came and we went to the field, because there are team members there. He would go and follow what is going through. Of course, the challenge is the language. I think some of the situations were new to him, I believe he hadn't seen the rural setting that much, and maybe also Kampala. The congestion in some parts is not the level that is you have in Europe or the U.S. Those were, I think, interesting sights for him, but I believe he knows exactly what excited him most. Exposure to the rural environment and the people you find there.

People in rural areas, when they see a new person, a new vehicle, they show hospitality of welcoming you and being around you. In rural areas, you go and introduce yourself, and somebody gives you his or her full time. Two hours sitting with you until you leave. Sometimes they even give you, "No, you can't go without taking something." It is that hospitality which sometimes surprises many.