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World Bank statistics

The article by Keith Marsden in the Asian Wall St Journal, 7
Nov, circulated by Andrew Mandell, cites various World Bank (and other)
statistics on Iraq's development indicators. These are serious points, and
deserve a full response. This posting is not that response, but I hope it
provides a few preliminary indications of the errors in that piece, and
the remaining confusions. Examples of errors, which I'll go through below,
include confusing North Korea and South Korea for comparative analysis
with Iraq; and reading the wrong column of the table so as to mistake 1980
data with 1996 data. Mr Marsden shows himself as unable to comprehend
tabular data; however, there's still a couple of points outstanding which
I haven't been able to clear up.

I count 5 different appeals to World Bank data in Marsden's piece. A
couple of preliminary points.

Firstly, the sources of the World Bank data are not clear. Since the Bank
does not collect data in Iraq itself due to its lack of any
facilities in the country (please correct me), it is as reliant on
others' sources as the rest of us. Unfortunately, it's not clear to me
where the data on Iraq in the Bank's World Development Indicators
(WDI; from where Marsden draws all his data) come from. In some cases, all
WDI data is cited as coming from specific sources, in which case we can
just look back at those sources for a clearer understanding. But in most
cases, the accuracy and reliability of Bank data is simply unknown to us.

Secondly, and relatedly, it's unclear how seriously we should treat
cross-country comparative data. Explanatory notes to WDI data caution
against judging one country against another, because the data are often
collected in different ways. It seems much more worthwhile to trace the
changes within a country's statistics over time, because the method of
collection is likely to remain largely the same. Again, we have no way to
test this for specific indicators, given the lack of information about
the sources of WDI data.

Anyway, here goes:

1. "However, the latest World Bank estimates, also derived from Iraqi
sources, show a slight fall in the IMR to 101 in 1999 from 102 in 1990."

[IMR = infant mortality rate, per 1000]

This is the main unresolved query. As Gabriel pointed out in his posting,
the 102/1000 for 1990 is simply untenable. Garfield reports 36/1000 in the
12 months prior to the imposition of sanctions, rising to 42 in the
prewar sanctions period, in "Morbidity and Mortality". No report I've seen
claims that the IMR skyrocketed in Iraq in 1990, even in the immediate
aftermath of the imposition of sanctions (Aug) before the start of the war
(Jan91). Nevertheless, it is true that the World Bank's WDI 2001, claims
that the Iraqi IMR for 1990 was 102.

At another point in the same report, it records that the IMR was 80 in

The 1990 World Bank figure also, incidentally, appears in the UN
Population Statistics series. Could anyone clear this up?

The figures, anyway, are still very high. The average in the Middle East
and North Africa region is 44/1000. In Syria, which Marsden often compares
Iraq with, the rate is 24/1000. Iraq's rate is by far the highest in the
Middle East - Yemen comes second, with 79/1000.

The Bank reports a drop in the IMR over recent years; it gives the figure
of 112/1000 in 1997 in WDI 1999:

2. "Yet according to the World Bank, Iraq's crude death rate has dropped
to 10 per 1,000 population in 1999, from 18 in 1965. It is now estimated to
be the same as South Korea's, one of the world's most rapidly growing

Marsden's confusion here of North Korea ("Korea, Dem. Rep."), whose crude
death rate (CDR) is indeed the same as Iraq's (10), with South Korea
("Korea, Rep."), whose CDR is 6, would be even more pitiable if the
statistic was meaningful in the way that Marsden intends it to be. After
all, saying the Iraq has the same CDR as North Korea would hardly provide
an indication of Iraq's good health! However, the CDR has very little to
do with the general well-being of a society, and everything to do with the
age distribution of a population. If there is a substantial elderly
population, and a small youthful population, the CDR will be high. It's
useful for assessing the changing size of a population (in combination
with the crude birth rate), not its health. For example, CDR for UK is
11 (higher than North Korea); for Vietnam & Mongolia it is 6.

The meaningful statistic, which Marsden conflates with CDR, is life
expectancy. For Iraq, this is currently 59. It was 62 in 1980. The
current average in the Middle East is 68. It is the only country in the
Middle East with a declining life expectancy.

3. "The World Bank also says that Iraq has substantially more physicians
and hospital beds per 1,000 people than Syria and Morocco, two countries
of similar population size and income levels."

Iraq has 0.6 physicians per 1000 people. This is the same as 1980.
Syria has 1.4 physicians per 1000 people. It was 0.4 in 1980.

One can only surmise that Marsden was reading the 1980 figures only (which
are presented first in the latest WDI).

(Morocco's figure is nearly the same as Iraq, but has increased 5-fold
over the past 20 years. My note about different forms of measurement
across countries may be pertinent here).

With regard to hospital beds, Iraq's is 1.5/1000 (1990-8; down from 1.9 on
1980). The equivalent figure for Syria is 1.5, up from 1.1 in 1980.
Hospital beds are far less an issue for Iraqis, as far as I've heard,
than adequate medical care.

4. "The World Bank reports an 85% rate for access to drugs in Iraq in
1997. This rate is defined as "the percentage of the population for which a
minimum of 20 of the most essential drugs are continuously available and
affordable at public or private health facilities or drug outlets within
one kilometer of the dwelling." The Iraqi rate is above those for Syria
(80%) and Malaysia (70%)."

These figures are indeed reported by WDI 2001.
But the only sources cited are WHO and UNICEF publications, which are all
listed in the relevant sections of
The actual descriptions of problems in Iraq in those reports do not match
the optimism that these statistics would indicate. I haven't checked if
the WHO-UNICEF data is translated accurately into the World Bank WDI

5. "The World Bank says that 85% of Iraqis had access to improved
(formerly called "safe") water sources in 2000, compared with 80% of
Syrians and 82% of Moroccans."

This is another puzzler. WDI does report that 85% of Iraqis have access to
an "improved water source" (in comparison to 89% across the Middle East).

But compare this to the previous WDI, from 2000, which claims that only
44% had access to "safe water" (in comparison to 74% in the period 1982-5)
and WDI 1999, which claims 77% had access to safe water.

The WDI 2001 claims to present figures from 2000; WDI 2000 for the 1990-96
period, and WDI 1999 for 1995 alone. This may explain some of the enormous
discrepancy, but I would be very surprised if the access to safe water
improved as rapidly as this would indicate. There may be some
problem with the data (77% for 1995 and 44% for 1990-6, for a start,
doesn't make much sense). Again, the sole sources cited are WHO & UNICEF,
so the validity of the data is best checked there.

Marsden also makes statistical claims from non-World Bank sources which I
haven't checked up yet. These are them:

"Yet the International Energy Agency reports that Iraq's electricity
production increased nearly fourfold from 1980 to 1998, and its per capita
electricity supply is now well above Syria's and Morocco's."

"The International Road Federation records that the number of motor
vehicles per 1,000 people increased by 3.6 fold in Iraq from 1990 to 1999,
reaching 51 compared with Syria's 30 and Morocco's 52. The number of
passenger cars soared to 36 per 1000 in 1999 from 1 in 1990."


I hope a more informed discussion from a more knowledgeable person is

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