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May 07, 2013

Questions Abound Over Growth Statistics in Africa

by Peter Heinlein

Economic statistics regularly show steady progress in Africa's development, even as  much of the continent remains mired in poverty. One scholar says the truth often is obscured by a raft of misleading statistics.

Ethiopia announced last week that its economy had grown at a rate of more than 10 percent over the past two years. Official statistics indicate the Horn of Africa country has maintained double-digit growth for nearly a decade.

Ethiopia is not alone among sub-Saharan African nations announcing strong growth figures. Figures supplied by the International Monetary Fund and The Economist magazine indicate Africa has surpassed Asia as the fastest growing continent. They predict that seven of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies over the next five years will be in Africa. Ethiopia leads the way, followed by Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria.

Yet many of these same countries rank among the world’s poorest.

Growth figures are often used to justify calls for bigger development budgets as a way to shrink the gap between rich and poor. Economic historian Morten Jerven of Simon Fraser University in Canada, however, said the data can be deceiving. Jerven told a recent development conference at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington that his research shows the numbers often appear to be manipulated, or even made up by governments to produce desired outcomes.

Jerven said statistical offices are under pressure to tell their bosses, and more importantly, potential aid donors, that development programs are working.

“There is one big problem, that is, there is always political pressure. In any statistical office in any country in the world, they would know more or less what the number the executive politicians would like to have… if you report a high number you’ll get more support, and if you report a low number you’ll get less support, then clearly one needs to rethink the independence of these data collection procedures,” he said.

Jerven said the inaccuracies are compounded by big international development agencies that compile the data and pass it on, thereby adding their credibility to statistics that often are misleading.
 
“I point the big finger of blame at the World Bank data group in this respect. They are one of the main agencies that collect data from national statistical offices and compile them in a big database where they are disseminated. We like to download these statistics from the World Bank and others, and we like to think they mean something. Most of the time they are just guessing, and we are often fooled when we do this,” said Jerven.

The Canadian researcher said that in some cases, statistics that are
"massaged" for political reasons can lead to absurd conclusions.

“In Malawi, where every year since they introduced a fertilizer subsidy, Malawi could report even higher maize production, to the extent that it became ridiculous. It got to be that either Malawians were putting on a huge amount of weight [to consume the amount of maize produced] or the numbers were simply not true,” he said.

Jerven’s study covered Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana. Twenty other countries participated through an email survey.

The full story is available in Jerven’s book, titled Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It?