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Are African statistics a tragedy?

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By Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa

Africa’s growth resurgence during the past decade and its persistence have taken many watchers of the continent by surprise. The international media have been busy coining labels to match this unexpected turn of fortune – “Africa rising” being the commonest and most misleading label to date. Interestingly, Africa’s recent high growth has also revived general interest in its administrative and planning processes, with national development plans and visions, all but abandoned in past decades, coming back into vogue. Equally important has been the revived interest in the collection of national statistics – which is of course key not only for national planning but also for investment decisions by the private sector. The recent rebasing of the GDPs of a number of African countries, including famously the doubling of Nigeria’s economy to half a trillion USD in 2014, has also raised interest globally in Africa’s data. 

During the late 1990s, and in the midst of Africa’s “darkest hour”, when everything that African governments were trying to do to generate growth and bring economies back on track, including structural adjustment policies, seemed to be failing, researchers in Western academia/development agencies began to refer frequently to Africa’s “growth tragedy.” As usual there was a proliferation of reasons for why Africa was failing to jump onto the growth and development bandwagon, blamed variously on geography, and the closely related disease burden, wrong policies, paucity of social capital, aid dependence, poor neighbourhoods, etc. More thoughtful explanations alluded to “unequal exchange,” to illicit financial flows, and to adverse international political economy, but these were few and far between.

This then brings us to “Africa’s statistical tragedy” as seen by pretty much the same set of eyes today as the earlier “growth tragedy”. Here the argument is that given Africa’s atrocious data quality we cannot know for sure whether Africa is indeed “rising” nor by how much. Moreover, that even if Africa was rising, we are not able to tell how this is impacting the general welfare of its population. The use of the word “tragedy” is of course partly meant to awe the reader. However, these are important charges and there is a powerful debate, mostly in the West, about the quality of African data.

A recent book by Ben Kiregyera, The Emerging Data Revolution in Africa – Strengthening the Statistics, Policy and Decision-making Chain, argues that it is only those not exposed to the wide-ranging efforts by African governments and institutions, including the African Development Bank, to herald a “data revolution” in Africa that would use the word “tragedy.” In the following paragraphs let me present a brief overview of the book and its contribution to Africa’s statistics debate.

Prof. Kiregyera argues that for a very long time the development of Africa’s statistics was left in the “hands of others”, and was not thought of as a strategic component for national development. It was thus poorly resourced in many countries, given low priority, and small budgets. Typically data were collected in censuses but took years to analyze and publish. The increasing demand for data from all sections of the economy, in reaction to the recent results agenda pursued by countries, has overwhelmed the national capacities to generate data in timely fashion. He argues, however, that the challenges vary across countries, with the most severe constraints to be seen in the transition economies. He notes that with respect to establishing national and regional statistical frameworks, much progress is being made and cites the new emphasis on civil registration systems as potential game changers. He also underlines that the peer reviewed national statistical systems that African countries have been setting up in the last ten years, with the African Development Bank playing a key role, will hold the continent in good stead in years to come, and require increased attention and support.

On data quality, Prof. Kiregyera argues that African data might not be all-encompassing but that what is available is of good and comparable quality with that in other developing regions of the world. That above all African data are far from being a tragedy. He believes, however, that the data revolution in Africa will be brought about by African countries themselves through dedicated capacity and institutional building. In his view the data revolution in Africa has taken root, but its sustainability will require a robust domestic debate.

The Emerging Data Revolution in Africa –Strengthening the Statistics, Policy and Decision-making Chain by Prof. Ben Kiregyera, published by SUN MeDIA, Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2015.

Categories: Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa


rafael gomez-jordana moya - Spain 01/12/2015 12:18
A good government African data statistics are crucial to have a more precise picture about a variety of subjects in the continent.
Think about trade, real growth data, demographics, etc. such information is essential from an investor point of view and African governments must invest in such issue to be more transparent and update it on the information they provide.
If you see the macro indicators information from WB FMI and others no one of them looks the same. Another example: The african trade statistics are unreal as you have a huge amount of non formal trade flows in Africa (see trade on the borders). Rafael G Jordana African desk banco Santander
AnniE - Côte d’Ivoire 01/10/2015 16:47
La Côte d'Ivoire et je pense, d'autres pays, travaillent effectivement à la mise en place d'instruments statistiques appropriés. En Côte d'ivoire, l'Etat a créé depuis plus de 10 ans un Institut de la Statistique et formé de nombreux cadres.
Francine MVENG - Cameroon 04/08/2015 10:35
This book seems to be a great contribution to the building of reliable african statistics.
Many African countries grant less interest in statistics. Forgetting that statistics are great decision making tools and enable accurate shaping and tailoring of projects to the local context. Avoiding to make simple copy and paste of what has been done elsewhere.
To help building strong statistics I totally agree that adequate capacity building of staff should be carried out.
Moreover statistics has to be regularly and more importantly regularly updated.
Oludare.G Fabiyi - Nigeria 31/07/2015 20:11
That was an informative write-up, Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa. Accurate government statistics are crucial to a sustainable economic development. Erroneous government statistics will no doubt result into ‘growth disaster’ as evident in the past in most African countries.
Growths were just being recorded on the pages of newspaper/journals while people were wallowing in abject poverty and diseases. Self-serving interest and corrupt predispositions of some of African leaders have not helped positively in this regard.
Hope still alive, there has been significant improvement in the African nations’ statistics in the recent times which has confidently enhanced their global relevance. For instance, Nigeria government was able to capture her service sector and entertainment industries that have been neglected in the past in the new rebased GDP.
However, African governments are urged to intensify genuine efforts in harnessing all aspects of economy to the pool. State of emergency should also be declared in the government statistical ministries/offices in order to promote creative thinking and better data management. Robust investment should be made in educational sector, research and development for long term sustainability.
Fabiyi Oludare G. (Msc Econs, ACA and ACIB)
Emerson Jackson - United Kingdom 26/06/2015 06:58
I am with the opinion that government departments responsible for collecting data will need to start thinking about employing qualified people to do their jobs properly. But most importantly, training must be an integral part of the process of data collection process, given the fact that we are in the information age and hence the mere reliance on just the archaic system of filing cabinet must be reviewed.

Unrealistic project growth rate is another major problem facing African countries. It may seem as if African countries are in the habit of copying developed nations by proving long term projection statistical figure on their growth rate, but with a review of their likelihood. Take for example, the UK government statistical office and backed by other 'tink tank' institutions would regularly review growth predictions based on prevailing national and global economic conditions that may likely impinge on the likely estimated growth statistics.

Worse of it all, over 90% of African economies are only reliant on raw materials, for example Gold, Diamonds and Oil for their GDP, but when in reality, we are in no way of determining the future stability of prices paid for these. In the likely event that global market is to be destabilise, then the entire fabrics of even good efforts devoted in collecting genuine data will eventually become a fallacy. Our economies [Africa] are fragile, a one Economist puts it "We Sell Cheap and Buy Expensively", and in this regard, we will always face bumps in the real predictability of statistical figures provided.

The best way on it is for Statisticians or even departments responsible for publishing Economic data about national economies in Africa to be very cautious in their publication of statistical results. Review of economic realities facing national African economies must done regularly so as to ensure proper test about their data predictions works in reality.
Carlos Santiso - 26/05/2015 18:03
A great piece and contribution by Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa! Government statistics are critical not only for measuring growth; they are crucial to improving people’s lives, delivering better policies and making everyone count. Reliable statistics and quality data are at the core of good government and state capacity. There are three key dimensions to getting government right: making governments more effective, efficient and transparent. All of these three attributes require better statistics and data. By more effective we mean a government is one that achieves results that respond to the needs of its citizens and is accountable to them. It manages by and for results and makes decisions based on credible data and robust evidence. More effectiveness requires better data. Government statistics are not sufficiently used to inform policy choices, and government programs are seldom evaluated rigorously. The statistical institute is often a peripheral part of government. Nevertheless, some countries such as Mexico are investing in their statistical capacity, granting greater autonomy to its statistical agency. In Brazil, the state of Minas Gerais launched a data-based “third shock of management,” while the state of Pernambuco developed a data-driven management model based on performance targets. Things are improving but the “data revolution” called for.

Carlos Santiso, Inter-American Development Bank
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