18 February 2014

Facts and Fiction of Africa's Statistics Narrative

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Gaborone — The book 'Poor numbers: How we are mislead by African Development Statistics and what to do about it' came under heavy criticism at a seminar last night organised by the 9th Symposium on Statistical Development in Africa (ASSD), in Gaborone, Botswana.

But the author, Morten Jerven was there to defend his book.

Jerven gave a short presentation of his book to a room packed with the African statistical community and other delegates of the symposium. The book was published in 2013 igniting debate and criticism particularly from African statisticians.

In his book, Jerven argues and questions the authenticity and credibility behind numbers produced by African statistical offices. He argues that although abuse of statistics, was a global problem, the situation was worse and bigger in sub-Sahara Africa citing conjectural and structural factors.

His presentation called it a knowledge problem citing among others, weak statistical institutions and the use of outdated base years, in some cases 20 years old to measure GDP. "The quality of GDP estimates is a symptom of how much states know about themselves" he said and made references to 'statistical illusions', 'statistical tragedy', and 'donor driven statistical agenda'

As a way forward, Jerven said investment in statistics was a real chance to invest in real institutions and real accountability for international organizations concerned about development and accountability

But discussants and the audience couldn't disagree more with Jerven.

While discussants particularly those who have read the book agreed that there was merit in some of the problems that Jerven points out such as a weakened and under resourced statistical offices, they took strong exception with the title and tone of the book, but more so his failure to acknowledge the many strides and data the revolution taking place on the continent.

Some discussants offered measured criticism, while others were fairly blunt. Busani Ngcaweni a discussant and Deputy-Director General in the South African Presidency, likened the book to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness an Salmon Rashdie's Satanic Verses.

Pali Lehlola, Statistician General of South Africa said his issue with the author was what he didn't include in the book. "I have no problem with what Professor Jerven is presenting today, my issue is the content he deliberately chose to leave out from the book" Lehlola said a decade of statistical revolution was omitted including ECAs Africa Centre of Statistics (ACS) which he referred to as an "elaborate statistical bank on the continent."

Another discussant, Ben Kiregyera, ACS former Director criticized Jerven for sensationalism and Afro statistical pessimism as well as his failure to consult statistical elders and the insinuation of political interference in the management of statistics. "I have two questions for Professor Jerven; which equation is he trying to solve and on whose behalf is he working?" Ended Kiregyera.

The discussion went on for more than three hours as discussants and audience members tore Jerven and his book apart, questioning motives and faulting his research methodology. Others suggested that he he writes another book.

In his response, Jerven took exception with some of the comments, defended his work and agreed to disagree.

The ASSD Secretariat thanked the author for accepting to come to the symposium and for enabling an intellectual debate on 'Poor Numbers'.

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