Last week, the presidential election cycle of the United States kicked off with the first round of primary debates. A score of candidates took to the stage to make their case for nomination. Throughout the debate, candidates provided various statistics to support their policy ideas. This wave of information was then followed up by the routine “Fact Check” articles published by most major news outlets. These stories attempt to make sense of the candidate’s data and understand how much of it is truthful. They show that the statistics used are frequently exaggerated or miscommunicated in some way that derails their meaning. For example, one candidate claimed that in the United States, “the top 1% control 90% of the wealth.” According to CNN, the Federal Government, and a NYU study, that 90% is much closer to 40%. This information is widely available and easily known; despite this, no one challenged the information or asked for clarification in any way. None of the candidates or moderators called for accurate information or pressed for truth during the debate. Moreover, the American people have come to expect to take debate facts with a grain of salt until journalists can confirm them. In the end, politicians can say whatever statistics they want at the podium without fear of being held accountable.
A similar phenomenon is happening in meetings at the United Nations. Delegates are providing bogus statistics to support their policies with no apparent form of accountability. For example, at a Humanitarian Aid conference in Geneva last week, delegates from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and United Kingdom voted down an amendment to remove abortion language from a document. They defended their vote with the statistic that, “Sexual and reproductive health problems are still the leading cause of death and disability for women in the developing world and an estimated 830 million women and girls die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every day.” This bold defense for sexual and reproductive health went unchallenged and largely supported by the delegates in the room. However, that statement is not exactly accurate because if it were true, the entire female population of earth would die out in five days. Despite this, the quote did not appear to raise any eyebrows and the meeting moved foreword as if everyone was on the same page.
Skewed information is used frequently in the United Nations. In 2017, a proposal to expand access to contraception cited 214 million women as lacking access to services. In reality, only 5% of that population lack access to contraception. In the highest political circles, lies, exaggerations, and misinformation is running wildly and there seems to be no system of accountability in place.
The reason for this lies partly in my colleague, Cesar Azrak’s analysis of diplomacy. In his blog, “Fist Take: UN Advocacy” Cesar identifies that in these formal settings, politicians are speaking past each other. Each of them has a set of talking points to deliver and are focused on communicating their message and moving on. No one is too concerned with listening to what other delegates are saying and certainly not to the point where they would object to bad stats. Thus, politicians do not hold each other accountable at the microphone because they are not particularly listening to one another.
It is not unreasonable to expect a representative to be adapted with listening skills. We need officials who have enough of an understanding of what is going on around them, that they demand facts. Moreover, we need fearless politicians who will pursue truth and seek a higher standard of debate. If our discussions are more rooted in reality, than our governing will be as well. We need leaders to hold each other accountable to the truth.