A Review of Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It

Over the past decade, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has attracted increasing attention from policy makers, academics, international organizations, and the business community. At the same time that the region has come increasingly into focus, the statistical base behind several books and studies,[2] and ultimately policy making and business decisions, has continued to be very weak. As a result, decisions taken without the benefit of having data, or taken based on incomplete or inaccurate data, may prove to be misguided.

This is the main message of Morten Jerven’s book Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It, which is the first study devoted exclusively to analyzing the state of national accounts statistics in SSA. The book presents a sobering picture of the current state of macroeconomic statistics in the region, as well of the massive amount of work needed in terms of statistical capacity building that lies ahead if one is to address the data gaps.

The book is persuasive in arguing that national account statistics in most countries are in serious need of revamping, both in terms of updating their base years and improving their collection, including through expanding their coverage.

To make its case, the book relies on a mixture of evidence, ranging from the description of the actual production process of national accounts statistics documented after field visits to some of the national statistical offices, the revision and careful comparison of published data by the national statistics offices (NSOs) and international organizations, and the results of a survey collected by the author. In this sense, the book is remarkable given that it is largely the result of the efforts of a single individual gaining access to NSOs, mainly through conducting interviews with their personnel and through searching often poorly documented methodological documents in their libraries and archives.

The book, published in early 2013, has already made an important contribution by bringing attention to an issue that is well known to most people who work in SSA in fields that require using data, but not necessarily to a wider audience who might have recently become interested in the region.[3]

Notwithstanding these very valuable contributions, the book has some weak spots. One of them, recognized at the onset by the author, is that most of the analysis is based on research in Anglophone countries. Another weak spot is that the book does not discuss the significant amount of technical assistance specifically in statistical capacity building provided to the SSA region. This is not to say that technical assistance has necessarily helped improve the situation, but rather that the provision of technical assistance is an important element that needs to be analyzed.

The book contains several inaccuracies that sometimes distract the reader from its main message. This might be the result of the fact that the book approaches the topic of the quality of macroeconomic data in SSA from a multidisciplinary perspective, which makes it challenging for the book to satisfy the rigor and even writing style that each specialist is accustomed to in their respective discipline. For example, the book uses interchangeably the terms economic development, economic activity, and economic performance, or uses gross domestic product (GDP) and wealth as equivalent concepts. The distinction of these concepts is particularly important for the SSA region, since for countries abundant in nonrenewable natural resources that depend on their extraction as a source of growth, real GDP growth might not be a good measure of economic performance, as some of the resources might be extracted at a rate that is higher than optimal, or the financial resources obtained from them might not be transferred across generations in an equitable manner.

The inaccuracies exemplified above and the recommendations for improvements in future editions of the books should in no way detract from its main message, namely, that the systems of national accounts in most countries in SSA are in dire need of improvement. The book is highly recommended to all those interested in the SSA region and in the measurement of economic activity in developing countries. Its publication has already started a much-needed lively discussion, which is a precondition for improving the quality of macroeconomic statistics. One can only hope that the momentum will be sustained.

Reviewed by Rodrigo García-Verdú [1]works as a senior economist in the African Department of the International Monetary Fund. Previously, he worked as an economist in the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management unit of the Latin America and Caribbean region at the World Bank and for the Mexican Federal Government in the Ministry of Finance and in the Ministry of the Economy. He began his career at Banco de Mexico, the country’s central bank. He holds a PhD and BA in economics from the University of Chicago and ITAM, respectively. 

[1] The opinions contain in this review are those of the author alone and should not be attributed to any other person or institution. E-mail: rgarciav@alumni.uchicago.edu

[2] For examples of recent books focusing on SSA, see Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford University Press, 2008; Miguel, Edward. Africa’s Turn? MIT Press, 2009; and Radelet, Steven. Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way. Center for Global Development, 2010.

[3] For a favorable review, see Gates, Bill. “The Problem with Poor Countries’ GDP.” Project Syndicate, 6 May 2013.

Rodrigo Garcia-Verdu
Rodrigo Garcia-Verdu