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COMMENT: The trouble with statistics in Africa

The Africa growth story is making headlines: Africa’s population is rising faster than that of any other region in the world. Its cities are growing. Its middle class is getting bigger. The youth bulge is expanding. China’s trade with the African continent is booming and Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country, by a factor of two – has overtaken South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy.

But look a little closer and many things are not quite as they seem. Can we really trust statistics on Africa?

Often, the answer is “no”. The debate about the Africa rising story is unlikely to be settled anytime soon because the numbers do not provide an accurate picture.

Nigeria’s GDP in 2012 was given as $268.7 billion. In 2013 it almost doubled to $522.6 billion and Nigeria has displaced South Africa as the continent’s largest economy. Did Nigeria’s economy double overnight?

Clearly not. Instead, the country’s statistics agency updated its GDP calculations. Governments should make these “rebasing” adjustments every five years, but Nigeria let 24 years elapse. Entire industries excluded from the old calculations, such as the booming film and mobile telephone businesses, have now been included, providing a more accurate impression of the size of Nigeria’s economy.

Poor numbers

This story serves as a warning for many of the numbers on Africa. The two most basic statistics about any country are how many people it has and the size of its economy. Without these two numbers it is impossible to calculate an accurate income per capita or a proper understanding of poverty.

Yet, according to the 2014 Africa Survey, released today by Good Governance Africa, 17 African countries have not conducted a census in the past decade. Five African countries have not conducted a census in over 20 years: Western Sahara (44 years), the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea (30), Somalia (27) and Madagascar (21).

The World Bank’s Bulletin Board on Statistical Capacity shows that only 16 African countries scored above 70 for statistical capacity, a measure of the competence of national statistical systems based on criteria consistent with international recommendations.

Scores range from 0 to 100 (best). Egypt achieved the highest statistical capacity score at 90. Eleven countries scored under 50 with Somalia scoring the lowest in Africa at 24.

Various flaws bedevil African statistics. The figures may be out of date, as is the case with population information on the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the last census was conducted in 1984.

Or old numbers may have been brought up to date by a process of extrapolation, with decreasing reliability as the length of the forecast increases. Should we believe the United Nations’ assertion that the total fertility rate for Africa will be 2.18 in the year 2100, 86 years from now?

Distorted data

Other statistics are distorted, unwittingly or intentionally, by the agencies gathering them. Is Ethiopia’s economy really growing at just under 10% per year, a figure that Western media have called “dubious” and “fanciful”?

Many of us are aware of these shortcomings. But we continue to use these numbers because they are the only ones we have. And although the margin of inaccuracy may be great, we expect that the trends shown by the numbers are often accurate.

It is likely true that many Africans are starting to move out of poverty and reaching for the first rungs of the ladder to the middle class. This is attracting investors who are beginning to see the untapped demand. Over time this commercial interest will improve the quality of the numbers as companies and governments begin investing in better data.

There is an increasing awareness that governments cannot make policy without good numbers. International donors and African governments have been dedicating more resources and attention to statistics since
the late 1990s, to which several collaborations bear witness: the 1999 Paris21 initiative, the Marrakech Action Plan for Statistics, the UN-backed Reference Regional Strategic Framework for Statistical Capacity Building in Africa, the African Union’s African Charter on Statistics, as well as other programmes and individual countries’ efforts.

We hope that these initiatives amount to more than just talk. Better data makes for better governance. It improves the allocation of resources, while gathering data focuses attention on the situation being analysed.

Comparisons over time or across administrative units show where progress is being made and where more attention needs to be focused. Decision makers need reliable statistics to make good policy, and Africa deserves better numbers.

Georgina Alexander is a researcher at Good Governance Africa. She has an Honours degree from Rhodes University in International Relations. She previously worked at the Institute of Race Relations as a researcher focusing on politics, government and assets and incomes.


John Endres is the CEO of Good Governance Africa, a research and advocacy organisation established in 2012. He has also worked in business and as a lecturer, translator, interpreter and language coach and previously held the role of senior project officer at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. John holds a PhD in change management.

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