Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It

Wednesday, 8 May 2013 - 6:00pm

Poor Numbers:
How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It


Date & Time: Wednesday, 8 May 2013, 6-8PM

Venue: Brunei Suite, SOAS

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Speakers: Morten Jerven, Assistant Professor, Simon Fraser University. Respondent: Judith Randel, Executive Director of Development Initiatives. Chair: Dr Deborah Johnston, Department of Economics, School of Oriental & African Studies.

One of the most urgent challenges in African economic development is to devise a strategy for improving statistical capacity. Reliable statistics, including estimates of economic growth rates and per-capita income, are basic to the operation of governments in developing countries and vital to nongovernmental organizations and other entities that provide financial aid to them. Donor countries and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, allocate their development resources on the basis of such data. The paucity of accurate statistics is not merely a technical problem; it has a massive impact on the welfare of citizens in developing countries.

All of the central questions in econmic development revolve around the measure of the production and consumption of goods and services. This is expressed in an aggregate composite metric called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is used to rank and rate the wealth and progress of nations. It is the most widely used measure of economic activity, yet little is known about how this metric is produced and misused in debates about African economic development.

Where do these statistics originate from? How accurate are they? Poor Numbers is the first analysis of the production and use of African economic development statistics. Morten Jerven’s research in various Anglo-phone African nations suggests that the data supplied by national records and statistical offices are highly unreliable, with figures that substantially misstate the actual state of affairs. As a result, scarce resources are misapplied; development policy does not deliver the benefits expected; policymakers' attempts to improve the lot of the citizenry are frustrated; and donors have no accurate sense of the impact of the aid they supply. Jerven’s findings have far-reaching implications for aid and development policy towards Africa. As Jerven notes, the current catch-phrase in the development community is "evidence-based policy," and scholars are applying increasingly sophisticated econometric methods - but no statistical techniques can substitute for partial and unreliable data.