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Why Those Normally Oh-So-Nerdy Statisticians Are Getting Down and Dirty Over Africa

Why Those Normally Oh-So-Nerdy Statisticians Are Getting Down and Dirty Over Africa

Last Saturday, as international relations professor Morten Jerven was blogging about his upcoming week of intercontinental conferences, he happened to mention that he was looking forward to the chance to "sit in on the discussions of the senior statisticians from many African countries and get their views on what they see as the most important challenges in providing better data for development." Less than a week later, he was suddenly dropped as the opening presenter for the U.N. Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA) — reportedly because many of those same statisticians had refused to be a part of his audience. Perhaps the cancellation should not have come as a complete surprise. After being catapaulted to social science stardom for his work on the unreliability of Africa statistics, Jerven has found himself the subject of similar statistician boycotts on another occasion before this one.

It’s a matter of principle, says Pali Lehohla, South Africa’s top-ranking government statistician. Lehohla has emerged as the leader of a group of African statisticians who are firmly against attending any talk where Jerven will be speaking. Lehohla claims that Poor Numbers, Jerven’s recent book and most famous work on Africa’s statistical tragedy, has "not been researched" and is "poor scholarship." While Lehohla doesn’t disagree with the general conclusion that many African countries need to improve their capacities to provide representative country-level data, he assails Jerven for, as he says, failing to reference any of the work already being done by Africans to combat the very problems that Poor Numbers seeks to expose. Lehohla insists that his complaint is with the methodology and not the results. "We have no problem with decent research, we are also scientists," he emphatically declared in a phone interview. 

At the crux of the matter is the issue that many African countries are lagging behind in updating their calculations of domestic GDP. The underlying data for such figures are self-reported by each country, and are thus notably sensitive to institutional capacity. The going recommendation is that countries should update their numbers once every five years in order to keep data relatable to current levels of prices and inflation. If they don’t, well, then you could find yourself in a situation like Ghana’s, where long-delayed updates, known as rebasing, mean that when the data were correspondingly adjusted, the country’s GDP jumped 63 percent "overnight" — reclassifying it, along the way, as a  middle- rather than a low-income country. Did anything about Ghana actually change in that one day? No. But poor numbers do upset the international community, from investors to development practitioners, who make a lot of important decisions (worth quite a bit of money) based on information that they’re not that sure of anymore.

Jerven’s African critics contend that he’s leaving out an important part of the story. In a response to Poor Numbers from Zambia’s Central Statistical Office, the director (who Jerven says denied his requests for an interview) lambasted him for "sneaking" into the office, "exploiting" a junior statistician who was new on the job, using as a point of reference an old manual that was in the process of being revised, and basically being a "hired gun" with a "hidden agenda" to discredit African statisticians. The National Institute of Statistics from Cameroon took a substantially softer tone, using Poor Numbers as an opportunity to articulate the reasons for delays in rebasing. They contend that ignoring them exaggerates the situation and paints a false and sensational portrait of the abilities of African statisticians.

Dr. Dimitri Sanga, the former director for the African Centre of Statistics, sheds some light on this by explaining (as Jerven also did for Foreign Policy) how decades of structural adjustment programs severely strained government activities and left statistical services neglected. These days, most statistical work is done in the service of big donors who are concerned with social indicators instead of national accounts. Catchup on standardizing methodologies and practices across the continent is happening; slowly, but surely.

In response, Jerven, whose work has been extensively peer-reviewed and was invited to UNECA by Lehohla’s colleagues, had this to say:

I do realize that the title of the book may seem like an undisguised insult to these statisticians, and for that I apologize. But I believe that openness and attention to this important problem in development studies justifies this language. For a variety of reasons, the numbers we currently use are providing us with a poor guide to African economic development.

As for the quality of Jerven’s research? Well, it’s the same as with many authors who work in controversial areas: "Either Lehohla has not read the book, or he is willfully misrepresenting my work."

Neha Paliwal is Assistant Editor at Democracy Lab.