The fight for Africa’s statistics narrative

The 9th Symposium on Statistical Development in Africa (ASSD), held in the end of last month in Gaborone, Botswana, took an intense turn when participants, mainly African statisticians and policy makers, took turns to criticize Morten Jerven’s 2013 book ‘Poor numbers: How we are mislead by African development statistics and what to do about it’ in the presence of the author who stood by his book.

Jerven gave a short presentation of his book to a room packed with the African statistical community and other delegates who attended the symposium. The book was published in 2013 igniting debates and criticisms 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 in sub-Saharan Africa citing hypothetical and structural factors.

In his presentation Jerven attributed this to a knowledge problem, citing, among others, weak statistical institutions and the use of outdated base years, in some cases 20 years old, to measure GDP.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 boost institutional capacity and create real accountability for international organizations concerned about development and accountability.

While discussants, particularly those who have read the book, agreed that there was merit in some of the problems that Jerven pointed 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 against what they said were his failure to acknowledge the many strides and data on the economic revolution taking place throughout the continent.

Heart of Darkness and more

Some discussants offered measured criticism, while others were fairly blunt. Busani Ngcaweni, Deputy-Director General in the South African Presidency, likened the book to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and 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 claimed a decade of statistical revolution was omitted including the ones from the Economic Commission for Africa’s 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?”

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

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


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