Friday, March 15, 2013

Morten Jerven’s "Poor Numbers"

Morten Jerven is assistant professor at Simon Fraser University. He has written for the Foreign Policy and The Guardian, and his research has been covered at BBC and Econtalk. He has published in numerous peer-reviewed journals.

Jerven applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Poor Numbers. How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It, and reported the following:
On page 99 I document an email exchange between me and the IMF Technical Advisor to East Africa. One of the central themes of the book is how development statistics for African countries have been created rather than collected. In this correspondence I asked the IMF Technical Advisor to East Africa how data users should interpret the economic statistics, particularly the GDP figures coming out countries such as Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. The question arose because in 2010 it was announced that GDP figures in Ghana were revised. As a result GDP per capita almost doubled, and Ghana went from being classified as a poor country, to a middle income poor country. I asked whether such revisions could be forthcoming in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania as well, in order to triangulate other information I had collected from national statistical offices that same year.

On page 99 it is recorded that the IMF representative responds that
“I have access to information provided to me on a confidential basis, I am not in a position to answer your request.” I countered that I had already been able to get some information from the World Bank, the UK Department for International Development, NORAD, and the IMF on these issues and explained that “one of the central aims of this study is to demystify the processes behind the production of income and growth statistics in the region. Taking the position that the IMF’s role in this process is ‘confidential’ raises more problems than it solves.”
The IMF advisor kept his ground and did in the end only respond to the request in general terms.

The central concerns regarding African development statistics is that with the current uneven application of methods and poor availability of data, any ranking of countries according to GDP levels is misleading. The book emphasizes the challenges for ‘data users’ in these circumstances and shows how data users, organizations, media and scholars are misled by African development statistics. My crucial point is that GDP data are disseminated through international organizations, but without any detailed data descriptions. Currently, data users are not getting the assistance they need. And the IMF response documented on page 99 in this case is typical.

In my book I used other methods – such as going through the source material and conducting interviews with the national income accountants in the countries that I visited (Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia). In these interviews I mapped the current state of development statistics and documented what is needed to improve on the situation. This system currently causes more confusion than enlightenment, and is dire need of reform.

Poor numbers are too important to be dismissed as just that.
Learn more about Poor Numbers. How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It at the Cornell University Press website, and visit Morten Jerven’s home page for more on the book and his research.

--Marshal Zeringue