BLOG: Kenya’s enduring love of ‘recommended ratios’

Kenyan officials have compared government statistics – on policing, healthcare, the judiciary – to one or other ratio “recommended” by some global body. But where do these ratios come from? And are they useful?

Spot the common theme:

  • In his 2017 state of the nation address, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Kenya had one police officer for every 380 citizens – “better than the prescribed UN ratio of one officer for every 450 citizens”.
  • In May 2018, Kenya’s health secretary Sicily Kariuki said a deal to hire specialist doctors from Cuba was “the first step” in meeting the “World Health Organization recommendation of  one doctor to 1,000 population”.
  • Kenya’s chief justice, David Maraga, frustrated at cuts to the judiciary’s budget, said in July 2018 that “all over the world, the judiciary is given at least about 2.5% of the national budget”. This was the “recommended global percentage”, he added.

You likely will have figured it out by now – the consistent reference by officials to a “recommended” ratio, which they typically attribute to an international organisation such as the United Nations.

In checking these claims, Africa Check is yet to find evidence of such “internationally recommended” ratios. And we have looked high and low.

‘UN police ratio’ dates back to 1945

The “prescribed UN ratio” of police to citizens appears to date back to the policing of occupied Germany by the US in 1945. At the time, one American police officer oversaw 450 German civilians.

What literature we could find showed that its success tended to inform later international policing, with the ratio being passed down from one UN document to another in the passing decades.

Experts on policing have consistently told us that prescribing a specific ratio would be difficult, given the wide differences in the capabilities and functions of the police across the world, let alone differences in cultures. The focus should be on the quality of policing, not on raw numbers.

WHO ratio a ‘suggestion’ from 2004

The World Health Organization ratio was more clear cut. The agency had not prescribed any ideal ratio of healthcare workers to population, Dr Mathieu Boniol, a statistician with the agency, told Africa Check.

It may have published some estimates, but these were for research work or benchmarking purposes, Boniol said. He added that a country’s number of healthcare workers should be adapted to its needs and the characteristics of its national health labour market.

The concept of a healthcare worker to population ratio appears to have leapt out of the 2004 findings of the Joint Learning Initiative, a Harvard University-backed network of global health leaders. The report suggested that a density of 2.5 workers per 1,000 people would help reduce deaths of children and mothers. But it did not set this as a general healthcare staffing goal.

Judicial systems are broadly different

Differences between countries’ judicial systems were also flagged by experts. The funding of the judiciary is nearly always a political decision.

International comparisons in this field are “often too complicated”, given the broad differences among judicial systems, one expert told Africa Check.

Ratios may have merit as a starting point for service delivery. “But they are far from scientific,” Prof Charles J Wheelan, senior lecturer at Dartmouth College and author of the book Naked Statistics, among others, told Africa Check.

Many ratios are inductive, building from observations, Wheelan said. “For example, they may say that it’s hard for a teacher to manage more than 25 elementary students in a classroom, so the recommended teacher to student ratio is no more than 1:25. That’s perfectly reasonable.

“On the other hand, a lot depends on the quality of the teacher, the challenges of the students, and so on.

Where’s the harm in ‘recommended ratios’?

One consequence of using these ratios is that policy and funding decisions are made according to statistics that don’t have much of a scientific leg to stand on.

And arbitrary ratios could hurt the credibility of a country’s policy, Dr Bitange Ndemo, an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s business school, told Africa Check.

Countries should instead use more data science in their decisions, Ndemo, a former top government official, said.

But perhaps another notable outcome is that Kenya – and other countries that gauge their achievements on these ratios – may think they are doing worse than they actually are.

For example, the budget allocation to Kenya’s judiciary has indeed essentially halved since 2014. But in that year its raw funding as a share of the national budget would have exceeded all but one of 16 European countries sampled by the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice.

So the next time you see a “recommended ratio” of anything, stop and ask yourself: recommended by who?

Further reading:


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