a civil sphere requires social statistics

Last month, UNICEF Yemen launched a monitoring system that will illuminate how families are surviving the recent political/social upheaval, as well as giving us a better sense of how ordinary poor people fare in what is widely recognized as the poorest country in the Middle East, and a critically important one for regional and global politics.

This monitoring system is a sociological survey that captures bi-weekly data from 120 households in poor sub-districts of three governorates: Sana’a, Hodeidah, and Amran. The survey is administered by women, to women. They’re asked questions about food security and nutrition, child safety, water and sanitation and child health. There are also intake questions that capture household characteristics.

I have here the results of the first round of data collection, with a second round completed and results to be released soon. The data are striking, and perhaps worse than you imagined.

  • 46% of children under 5 experienced at least one bout of diarrhea in the past two weeks
  • 55% of households report that at least one member had gone to bed hungry within the past two weeks
  • 43% children under five were having fewer meals in the last two weeks
  • estimated water use is merely 16 liters per person/day. (N.B. The average American consumes 176 gallons per day, which is about 666.2 liters.)
  • 31% of household members older than 10 years are illiterate.
  • 34% of women were first married before age 18, and 18% were first married before they were 15.
  • Half of the households do not have enough soap for personal hygiene or cleaning clothes.
  • 34% reported having children under 5 years old with a cough.

The organizers of the survey are encouraged by the results–not the answers, but how well the survey administration went. They will soon scale to the national level, and may, at that time, use electronic-based data entry.

My friend who is involved in the project made a special point of telling me about the commitment of the data collectors: they must go to very remote locations to complete the surveys. For example, in the Amran governorate, the survey collectors take a car to a certain point, then trek up a mountain on foot, and then walk another several kilometers to the families. My friend described them as having made an “unbelievable effort and achievement. The people who write and administer these surveys are the first step in a process designed to save lives and end wars.

We really do take for granted the availability and quality of social statistics. And we use data like these all the time–consider every single time you’ve heard a quality or value/price quoted “per capita.” Someone had to count the damn capita before it could be the denominator! What about every time you’ve heard people debate education policy, or health policy…those debates have as their foundation some reasonably comprehensive data about the literacy and lifestyles of the people at question. We have no such understanding of the people of Yemen.

You simply cannot have a modern, functioning civil sphere without basic social statistics.



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