- By Morten JervenMorten Jerven is an economic historian who specializes in economic development in Africa and currently teaches at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University. He's the author of Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It.
When I published my book on African economic statistics earlier this year, I never expected it would ruffle quite so many feathers. Last week, Foreign Policy published a story about the latest chapter in this lamentable epic. After the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA) invited me to present my research on African statistical capacity, other presenters withdrew their names in a boycott led, notably, by Pali Lehohla, the statistician-general of Statistics South Africa — leading me to be dropped from the conference. But rather than engage with my ideas, Lehohla and his self-proclaimed union of "African Statisticians" seem to be focused on attacking me rather than the issue at hand. It’s ultimately a self-defeating campaign.
I can understand why any statistician would take exception to having the validity of his or her numbers dissected in the public. In Poor Numbers I take a close look at how African economies have been measured in the past, and extrapolate from that what we really know about income and growth in sub-Saharan Africa. The short answer: a lot less than we like to think. The data are unreliable and potentially seriously misleading. It’s all too easy to imagine how that conclusion came off as threatening to some of my African colleagues who are responsible for generating these questionable numbers on the economic performance of their countries.
But that still doesn’t explain the vitriol with which my research has been greeted by some civil servants in South Africa and Zambia recently. They’ve accused me of acting as a "hired gun" for foreign powers and have claimed that I didn’t do my own research. It’s been hard to keep up with the outrageous allegations and defamations spread by Lehohla — something that I find hard to square with his public role as a guardian of national statistics, which are supposed to be based on objective information.
One intriguing aspect of the whole affair is that the Zambians and the South Africans accuse me of contradictory sins. Pali Lehohla’s allegation that I haven’t done my research stands in stark contrast to the position of his Zambian counterpart, who wrote a reaction to my book making exactly the opposite argument. Lehohla’s problem is that I have done my research and that I have done it well. Neither Pali Lehohla nor the Zambian statistical office has come up with any factual basis for disagreeing with the diagnosis I present in my book. The IMF’s Regional Outlook Reports for Africa team, as well as UNECA and AfDB, actually carried out replication studies on the comparable statistics in African countries, and confirmed the pattern that I found. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa published an article affirming my research on what he calls "Africa’s statistical tragedy."
Instead of accepting the validity of my research, Lehohla has also accused me of "failing to reference any of the work already being done by Africans." That is false. Not only do I cite a number of such sources, I have also published an article with Magnus Ebo Duncan at Ghana Statistical Services in the African Statistical Journal, and continue to work with statisticians working in Africa. Lehohla knows this, and so does Dimitri Sanga (whom I reference) of UNECA, who is cited as disagreeing with my work in FP. But both Sanga and the Director of UNECA have quoted my analysis affirmatively and approvingly elsewhere. Lehohla claims that some "African" consensus decision was made last April to oppose my book after a conference in Vancouver. Yet I wasn’t invited to present my work at UNECA until last week, and this invitation was revoked only after Lehohla’s disgraceful intervention.
This squabble is not limited to academic journals: It may have real, serious consequences. Because Lehohla has put reality aside and devoted himself to "stopping Jerven in his tracks" before I "[hijack] the African statistical agenda," there is a real danger that good initiatives may be suspended and cancelled. Any observer of this debate is likely to draw two conclusions. One: the quality of African statistics is a problem. Two: some of the leaders seem to react very aggressively rather than doing something about it. When Bill Gates read Poor Numbers he concluded that it was time to invest in better GDP statistics. But is it likely that he and others will allocate more resources to the officials that seek to censor public debate? I fear that the public statements made by Lehohla and his supporters may serve to confirm to skeptic observers that statistical offices are part of the problem and not the solution.
Poor Numbers makes an unprecedented argument for investing in the statistical capacity of African countries. Why would Lehohla and his silent supporters go against this? The answer is simple: Pali Lehohla and his counterparts are doing well in the current system. Any change to the status quo in the political economy of statistics in Africa is considered a threat.
Meanwhile, I still think any effort to provide the public with better statistics must engage with statistical offices and their interests. I worry that while there is an increasing demand for evidence for policy, we forego the opportunity to invest in accountability. I think it is a mistake to think of data as a technocratic search for facts. It must be viewed as an exercise in building institutions. For all the recent talk of institution-building and governance in development circles, there has been a surprising gap in analyzing the statistics off which all other initiatives are based. My work aims to set this imbalance right. It is frustrating when other agendas stand in the way of such an exchange. In the meantime, I take some comfort from the many expressions of support that have been relayed to me. I hope, when the dust settles, that we are ready for a free and open debate where all parties feel able to take part.
Morten Jerven is an economic historian teaching at Simor Frasier University. Earlier this year, he published his first book, Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It.