What can Oxfam’s new Davos Report teach us about Killer Graphics?

January 19, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Ever since Matt Griffiths and I came up with the ‘cowfact’ in the early 2000s, I’ve been struck by the power of ‘killer facts’ in NGO communications (heck, even Fidel Castro used Oxfam ones). But things have moved on, and now we live in a more visual, tweetable age of ‘killer graphics’.

So if killer facts reveal an injustice through a juxtaposition of numbers (more nuanced typology here), what are the equivalent rules of thumb and challenges for killer graphics?

Some are merely pictorial depictions of the killer fact, as with the Oxfam yacht pic to illustrate its agenda-shifting Davos 2014 KF on global inequality.

Others are graphs. John Burn-Murdoch at the Financial Times tweets amazing threads of graphs on stuff like Covid and austerity – if you’re comfortable with browsing a dozen graphs I urge you to join his half million followers. But a lot of people don’t ‘get’ graphs. One of the brilliant ways Branko Milanovic brought his charts on global inequality to life was superimposing an elephant on his graph showing the deeply unequal distribution of income from 1988 to 2008. That made the basic finding much easier to remember, even for graph lovers like me. Without that, his work would have had far less impact.

Which brings us to Oxfam’s annual broadside for the Davos meeting, launched this week (see summary here).

The two most powerful KF’s on the opening page are:

‘Elon Musk, one of the world’s richest men, pays a ‘true tax rate’ of just over 3%.
Aber Christine, a market trader in Northern Uganda who sells rice, flour and soya, makes $80 a month in profit. She pays a tax rate of 40%.’


‘Since 2020, the richest 1% have captured almost two-thirds of all new wealth – nearly twice as much money as the bottom 99% of the world’s population.’

They make an interesting contrast – one has faces, the other doesn’t. More detail in this box further into the report:

Moving on to the graphics I found the most powerful graph (and the report is graph-tastic, believe me) to be this one:

It has a lot of information in it, but following Branko’s lead, would it also benefit from a visual metaphor that captures its shape? I was thinking sun lounger/deck chair on the Titanic, but Max Lawson, who leads Oxfam’s policy work on inequality prefers the ‘dinosaur graph’ (right) created by Tim Gore in his paper on carbon inequality. Max thinks Tim was also behind the climate champagne glass (right), from this 2015 paper.

Where both the dinosaur and the champagne glass have the edge over Branko’s elephant is that the choice of visual metaphor reflects the message of the stats, as well as the graph itself. Smart.

But I wonder how academics reading this post will react. Do they ever think about turning their research into a tweetable graphic? If not, why not? After all, Branko is a highly respected professor at numerous universities. In these days when all researchers are expected to prove their impact, spending some time coming up with potential killer graphics seems like a no brainer to me.

January 19, 2023
Duncan Green