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Poor Numbers: how we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it

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Morten Jerven
Cornell University Press (24 January 2013)

One of the most urgent challenges in African economic development is to devise a strategy for improving statistical capacity. Reliable statistics, including estimates of economic growth rates and per-capita income, are basic to the operation of governments in developing countries and vital to nongovernmental organisations and other entities that provide financial aid to them. Rich countries and international financial institutions such as the World Bank allocate their development resources on the basis of such data. The paucity of accurate statistics is not merely a technical problem; it has a massive impact on the welfare of citizens in developing countries.

Where do these statistics originate? How accurate are they? Poor Numbers is the first analysis of the production and use of African economic development statistics. Morten Jerven's research shows how the statistical capacities of sub-Saharan African economies have fallen into disarray. The numbers substantially misstate the actual state of affairs. As a result, scarce resources are misapplied. Development policy does not deliver the benefits expected. Policymakers' attempts to improve the lot of the citizenry are frustrated. Donors have no accurate sense of the impact of the aid they supply. Jerven’s findings from sub-Saharan Africa have far-reaching implications for aid and development policy. As Jerven notes, the current catchphrase in the development community is 'evidence-based policy,' and scholars are applying increasingly sophisticated econometric methods - but no statistical techniques can substitute for partial and unreliable data.

  • Morten Jerven is a senior visiting fellow with the Department of Economic History at LSE.

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'I found Poor Numbers illuminating and disturbing at the same time - I think that is exactly what Morten Jerven intended. It is well written, even elegant in some places. Jerven's recommendation that more funding be put into statistical services to do baseline surveys and field-based data collection makes a lot of sense.'
Carol Lancaster, dean of the School of Foreign Service and professor of politics, Georgetown University

'In Poor Numbers, Morten Jerven takes on the issue of inaccurate macroeconomic data in Sub-Saharan Africa. First, by describing collection methods, he shows quite convincingly that the data are pretty dreadful, and perhaps more damning, that they may include systematic and predictable flaws linked to the way in which they are collected and aggregated. Jerven demonstrates that basic national accounts data are too poor to assess very basic characteristics of African economic performance since independence. This short elegant book is fascinating and strikes me as a must-read for any social scientist interested in African political economy and policy.'
Nicolas van de Walle, Cornell University

Book launch

Wednesday 22 May from 6-7pm at the Waterstones Economists' Bookshop, Clare Market, Portugal Street, London, WC2A 2AB.

At the launch, Morten Jerven will say a few words about the book and then there will be a reception, book signing and informal interaction. All our welcome to attend.


Poor Numbers