The devil is in the detail – an analysis of the DBSA’s ‘Access to Sanitation’ indicator

18 January 2011

When using indicator values to measure change over an interval of time, the general understanding of the factor being analysed may have been modified during the period under review. Altered definitions of ‘urban’, or ‘poverty’, provide common instances of this phenomenon. This article outlines a similar situation with respect to the ‘access to sanitation’ indicator as it features in the Development Bank of Southern Africa’s series of Development Reports. These publications are often referred to as a ready source of useful information. It is shown how an altered understanding of what constituted ‘sanitation’ in South Africa came to influence the relevant indicator values. This change, if not taken into account, could result in planning calculations yielding invalid conclusions. The article deals with the casual use of ready-to-hand indicators by nonspecialist practitioners, and about how easy it is to be misled on occasion.