Is the World Bank Deliberately Hiding its China Poverty Forecast?

I want to preface this post by saying that by nature I’m not a conspiracy theorist. But it seems to me that there is something funny going on with the World Bank’s efforts to monitor and forecast poverty in China.

I’ve done some work on poverty forecasting in the past, so I’m always excited to see when the World Bank, the official voice on such matters, puts out new forecasts. Last month the Bank released its Global Monitoring Report 2012, which includes its latest estimates of poverty for the year 2015. Here’s the relevant table:

When I first read this table my eye immediately focused in on the “—“ for China in 2015, which I initially took to mean the Bank believed $1.25 poverty would be effectively eliminated by then. While this would be an optimistic forecast, it actually doesn’t sound that crazy to me; after all, the World Bank’s China office (which, importantly, I believe operates mostly independently of the poverty team) wrote all the way back in March 2009 [PDF] that “extreme poverty, in the sense of not being able to meet the most elementary food and clothing needs, has almost been eliminated in China.”

But when you look at the bottom of the table, you see that “—“ actually means not available, rather than effectively zero. The obvious question, then, is why isn’t it available? Since we’re talking about forecasts, this can’t be a “data availability” issue in the strict sense of the term, because of course none of the data is actually available; these are the Bank’s best guesses at what poverty will be in 2015. So why isn’t there a guess for China?

The fact is there is a guess for China – there has to be – the Bank just won’t tell us what it is. And not only will they not explicitly tell us what it is, but they’ve gone out of their way to ensure we can’t calculate it ourselves.

We can be sure that there is a China estimate simply by noting that there’s an estimate for the East Asia and Pacific region as a whole; China accounts for about two thirds of the region’s population, so obviously it’d be impossible to guess how many poor people there’d be in the region without having a pretty good guess as to how many poor people there’d be in China.

Even more intriguingly, however, look at the bottom two rows of the table; the Bank gives a 2015 estimate for “World”, but the figure for “World excluding China” is once again “not available”. Note that logically this makes very little sense; if the figure for China were truly “not available”, then the Bank should be able to estimate “World excluding China” but not “World”, not the other way around. So why is the figure for “World excluding China” “not available”? Is it because if it were available we’d be able to work backwards and calculate the Bank’s 2015 forecast for China, which for some reason it doesn’t want to reveal?

One face-saving explanation would be if somehow the Bank’s model for producing these results truly only produced regional data, i.e. if the regional figures didn’t represent aggregates of national data (or aggregates of the big countries plus some residuals), in which case there wouldn’t be any “China” figure to show. But I’m sceptical of this for a number of reasons. In order of increasing conspiracy-ness:

One, it would just be a strange way to forecast poverty. While you maybe wouldn’t include every country in the world when you want to be able to add up to a global aggregate, whatever form of model you’re using can surely handle more than the six regions the Bank divides the world into, and the more fine-grained you get the better. And you’d certainly want to have specific data for China and India, as these two countries drive the global picture (and both have some controversial issues concerning their poverty counts, so it’s important to be able to speak about them specifically). And the source says ‘World Bank staff calculations from PovcalNet database’, and the PovcalNet database definitely builds regional aggregates by summing national data.

Two, in earlier editions of the Global Monitoring Report there’s always been a figure for China in 2015. Here’s the relevant table from the 2011 report:

So last year the projection method clearly allowed the Bank to forecast 2015 poverty in China; why not this year?

Three, and this is where we get to the most conspiratorial part – and admittedly most speculative, but of course what is a blog for if not wild speculation: the most recent poverty survey for China, which covers the year 2008, has been the subject of considerable rumours in the past. Specifically, there was quite a long delay from when many people thought the results would be released to the public until when they actually were, which was just a few months ago. Rumours from within the Bank suggested that the Chinese representatives at the Bank were being very secretive with the data, did not want to grant many people access to the raw data, and were deliberately holding up its public release. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything written on this, so take it with a grain of salt, but I know a number of people who care about poverty data who spent a long time waiting to learn the results of the last China survey…

What are we to make of all this? My guess is there are two possible stories going on. One is that the poverty team within the Bank just doesn’t have enough faith in its China data to be willing to publish a specific forecast for the country – perhaps because of some of the well-known problems with the country’s PPP exchange rate estimate, or perhaps because of some issues with the 2008 survey, or something else. On the one hand this makes some sense – when you’re aggregating national forecasts into regional forecasts you have some room for errors to cancel each other out, and it’s easier to have more confidence in the broader picture than in the narrow one. But on the other hand, China’s a huge country; if we don’t have confidence in the China national data, then why would we have any confidence in the East Asia and Pacific regional data? And, perhaps more to the point, why in the 2011 GMR could the Bank feel confident enough to put out a 2015 forecast, but a year later it doesn’t?

The second possible story is more sinister: that there is some deliberate effort to keep Chinese poverty data and estimates from being released to the public. Did the poverty team within the Bank produce a figure for China – they almost certainly did – but someone else within the Bank decided this wasn’t the “right” number, and so didn’t want it published? Was there originally a number on the China line, but somewhere during the editing process it was crossed out? I know that sounds kind of crazy, but poverty data can be easily politicized – just ask India. I’d hope the Bank would be able to keep these political issues to a minimum, but it is of course not immune to political pressures, both internal and external.

The funny thing is, the Bank could have rather easily avoided this issue by simply eliminating the China-specific rows from the table; it almost seems as though they’re going out of their way to say “we have an estimate for China but we’re not going to tell you what it is”. Just what is going on here? Maybe there’s a good, logical explanation for all of it – and I hope there is – but right now I don’t see it…

UPDATE: See a response from the World Bank here.

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  1. 1 The World Bank Responds on Chinese Poverty Forecast « Tomorrow's Economy Trackback on May 17, 2012 at 11:26 pm

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