Lies, damned lies, and African economic statistics

One important measure of the global divide is….measurement.

Countries in North America and Europe are currently gripped by every scrap of news about their ailing economies. Stock markets plunge and governments totter in response to jobs and growth data of mind-boggling detail and immediacy.

I do applaud the rare and brutal honesty of Shanta Devarajan, World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, who last week went very public about the quality of GDP and poverty measurements in the sub-Saharan countries.

Shanta’s deconstruction of what he rightly calls “Africa’s Statistical Tragedy” should be compulsory reading for any journalist, researcher or politician intending to make statements about poverty reduction in Africa. He concludes:

the economists’ celebratory estimate of poverty declining in Africa during a period of growth needs to be taken with a grain of salt. In reality, there are many countries for which we simply don’t know.

The grain of salt turns into something stronger when Shanta dares to observe that, even where new data from professional social surveys becomes available, it often falls victim to political tampering or non-disclosure.

He could have gone further and mentioned the widespread tendency for national progress reports on the Millennium Development Goals to make straight-line extrapolations of rates of poverty reduction, as though the years of food, fuel and economic crisis had never happened.

Unfortunately, the UN’s annual global MDG report always swallows these verdicts whole, declaring that the 2015 poverty goal will be achieved.

I’ve always felt that a key contribution of OneWorld’s country briefings is to spell out precisely what is known about the rate of poverty as distinct from wishful thinking. This often makes for less than riveting text but I hope the result is at least true to our educational purpose.

Amongst the ten countries that we are currently able to monitor in detail, I reckon that Zambia, Nepal, India, Nigeria and Senegal have to a greater or lesser degree fallen into Shanta’s category of political skulduggery on poverty data over the last year. Malawi and Ethiopia have presented breathtakingly presumptive MDG reports.

As so often, the big exception is Rwanda whose 2010 MDG analysis bends over backwards to warn that its target is unlikely to be achieved, such are the uncertainties of data and events.

I suspect that Rwanda may in fact be progressing pretty well. And I don’t want to imply that prospects for poverty reduction in sub-Saharan Africa are necessarily negative.

We all have a responsibility to find language that captures the business activity that is undoubtedly buzzing in many African capitals, but without jumping to wider conclusions until the evidence is there.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK