A man walks past a large pool of water following rains on March 22, 2015 that resulted in flooding around some residential areas of Dar es Salaam. The rainy season, which began this week, is expected to bring ‘normal to moderate’ rain levels to coastal Tanzania, says the Tanzania Meteorological Agency. (Daniel Hayduk/AFP/Getty Images)

I landed in Dar es Salaam over the weekend to prepare for a research workshop on Tanzania’s natural gas sector.  “We need a quote from a government official saying that they think this research is a good idea,” my co-author, Mujobu Moyo, announced.  “Otherwise journalists might be hesitant to cover it.”

Welcome to election year in Tanzania. On March 27, the Tanzanian parliament passed a “new draconian data law” that would allegedly criminalize the publication of any statistics not endorsed by the National Bureau of Statistics, with minimum penalties of one year in prison or a $6,000 fine. I say allegedly, because nobody seems to be able to find the actual bill. President Jakaya Kikwete hasn’t given any indication yet whether he’ll sign it, though it was rushed through parliament with backing from the ruling party.

Somewhat awkwardly for the Obama administration, Kikwete has also taken a lead role in the Open Government Partnership — a multilateral initiative hatched by the White House to promote government transparency worldwide.

So what is the Tanzanian government trying to hide? The specific provocation behind the bill is unclear. But in the spirit of thumbing one’s nose at government overreach, here’s a sampling of unofficial, but highly reputable statistics about Tanzania that might explain what’s going on.

1. Only a third of children can read in English

Like many other African countries, Tanzania has made huge strides in expanding basic services like health and education. The primary school enrollment rate, for instance, is officially at 94%. But “unofficial” statistics suggest the quality of those services is often quite poor.

Only about a third of kids age 10 and above can read an English paragraph from the second-grade syllabus. And while Tanzania prides itself as the home of Kiswahili in East Africa, Tanzanian children also score lower than their Kenyan neighbors on Kiswahili literacy.

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Test pass rates for children 10+, by country. Data: Uwezo survey, 2013. Figure: Twaweza, “Are Our Children Learning? Literacy and Numeracy Across East Africa 2013

This data comes from Twaweza, a Tanzanian civil society organization that has made a splash by combining independent data collection, rigorous analysis, and strident advocacy around issues like the poor quality of education, access to water, and other basic services. Not surprisingly, organizations like Twaweza, founded and run by Tanzanians, are largely dependent on European aid agencies and U.S. philanthropic organizations for funds (much like my own employer in Washington, D.C.).  That probably protects their ability to keep collecting data, but perhaps not to keep disseminating it locally.

2. Teachers are absent from class most of the time.

Perhaps it’s no surprise kids can’t read, since teachers are never in class. Nationwide, teachers are absent from school about 23 percent of the time, but in random visits to classrooms, they’re absent from their actual classroom more than 50 percent of the time on the days they’re counted as present.

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Share of Teachers Absent from Classroom During Unannounced Visits. Data: Service Delivery Indicators. Figure: World Bank.

This damning statistic doesn’t come from a rabble-rousing advocacy group, but from the World Bank. Big foreign aid donors like the Bank are increasingly stepping outside their normal mandate of dealing directly with the government as a client, and taking a message of government failure directly to the public.  It’s unclear whether the Tanzanian public has taken much notice, but the new data law suggests the government has.

3. Most doctors can’t correctly diagnose the ailments that kill the most Tanzanians

Lest you think Tanzania’s challenges with basic services were limited to education, here’s an eye-opening statistic on health services, from the same World Bank study cited above. Researchers presented clinicians with hypothetical patients, suffering from a variety of symptoms that commonly afflict Tanzanians, and tested whether they could offer a correct diagnosis.

Share of Clinicians Who Reached Correct Diagnosis; Data: World Bank, Service Delivery Indicators/"SDI Tanzania Technical Report”
Share of Clinicians Who Reached Correct Diagnosis. Data: Service Delivery Indicators. Figure: World Bank “SDI Tanzania Technical Report”

Shockingly, only 27 percent of doctors could correctly diagnosis malaria with anemia, and 29 percent could correctly diagnose diarrhea with severe dehydration — two leading causes of death for Tanzanians.

4. Nevertheless, Tanzania’s economic growth record has been fairly strong

In some cases, Tanzania’s new statistics law is futile. For instance, lots of interesting data on Tanzania is collected from outer space.  Recent research using NASA’s “Night Lights” shows that increases in luminosity viewed from space correlate pretty well with economic growth.  Researchers can use the night lights to validate official national accounts data, and in the case of Tanzania, the two seem to roughly agree (see Figure 6b here).

Satellite Data on Lights at Night in Tanzania Provide a Proxy for Economic Activity DATA: NASA FIGURE: Adam Storeygard, “Farther on Down the Road: Transport Costs, Trade and Urban Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa”
Satellite Data on Lights at Night in Tanzania Provide a Proxy for Economic Activity. Data: NASA. Figure: Adam Storeygard, “Farther on Down the Road: Transport Costs, Trade and Urban Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa”

Officially, Tanzania has been growing at a healthy 7 percent for the past decade, and Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), is eager to run on that track record.  It seems the party has nothing to fear from independent data collection — though there’s not much the party leaders could do about it anyway.

5. And most Tanzanians are satisfied with their democracy

A majority of Tanzanians support democracy over authoritarian rule, and more than two-thirds consider Tanzania to be a democracy and say they’re satisfied with its performance — even if it may soon be a crime to report that fact.

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Demand for Democracy in African Countries. Data: Afrobarometer. Figure: Ben Taylor.
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Supply for Democracy in African Countries. Data: Afrobarometer. Figure: Ben Taylor.

This finding comes from the Afrobarometer survey run by REPOA in Tanzania, a think tank with a fairly collaborative relationship with the government. Suffice it to say that if the new statistics bill indeed becomes law, selective enforcement is almost guaranteed.

The foreign aid donors who finance much of the independent data on Tanzania’s development are beyond the reach of this new crackdown — but the Tanzanian researchers, journalists, and activists who are pioneering a more open, evidence-based policy conversation may not be so lucky.

As the saying goes, “you are entitled to your own opinion; you are not entitled to your own facts.” Tanzania’s parliament seems to have embraced the message, but missed the point.

Justin Sandefur is a Research Fellow at the Center for Global Development