African Statistics Day 2013 : African progress is about people AND numbers

Today, the world celebrates African Statistics Day 2013. The day is commemorated annually, and this year the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) aims to increase public awareness over the important role that statistics play in all aspects of social and economic life in Africa with a theme on  “Quality Data  to support African Progress”. This inspired me to write a blog exploring what that really means in practice- how do better statistics actually support progress, in Africa?

A graphic from Ch6 of Investments to End Poverty, describing the impacts of poor data on policymaking.

A graphic from Ch6 of Investments to End Poverty, describing the impacts of poor data on policymaking.

Poor data = poor planning and policymaking

Over the past 30 years a lot of investments have been made to build to the capacity of national statistical offices in developing countries. Indeed, there was a time international donors such as DFID, the World Bank, CIDA, and SIDA had large programmes supporting the development (institutional and personnel) of statistical collection offices. These programmes seemed to have tapered off over the last decade or so in sub-Saharan countries, without being replaced by investments from government budgets; statistics offices are now hugely understaffed (as Morten Jerven explains in his book Poor Numbers). This has resulted in delays in the carrying out of key surveys such as Censuses, Integrated Budget Household Surveys and Labour Force Surveys. For example, in Kenya, the last Integrated Budget Household Survey was conducted in 2005, while the last Labour Force Survey was conducted in 1998/99! (For the international context on poor household survey data, see Ch6 of DI’s recent Investments to End Poverty report).

There could be a number of reasons for these shortcomings, including capacity constraints in financial and human resources. Regardless, this has serious implications for effective national policy planning. Essentially, in many African countries, policies for dealing with unemployment, job creation, social policy (education, health etc) are being developed using old, poorly disaggregated and incomplete data, that cannot reflect the true state of affairs in that society or economy. This raises significant questions about the robustness of policies developed to address issues of poverty reduction, economic growth, and development.

Poor data impacts on poor people

The threat of poor policymaking, due to inadequate data and statistics, affects developmental outcomes as well as national planning. The theme for this year’s African Statistics Day, ‘supporting Africa’s progress’, is appropriate; given the increasing attention on the continent by the global community. ‘Africa Rising’, ‘It’s time for Africa’, ‘Realising Africa’s Potential’ are just a few of the terms being bandied around while many people talk about Africa’s progress in the context of the post-2015 discussions.

One of the biggest challenges facing the global development community is measuring the impact and attainment of the MDGs. These challenges are related both to poor statistical data, and to the lack of harmonised methodologies to measure the impact of the MDGs and other national goals set by governments (see The High Level Panel Report which looks at the developing world post-2015 makes the point for the need of a ‘data revolution’, a very abstract construct but one that is very relevant. For the reasons I’ve discussed above, it’s clear that without statistical support, the ambitious goals of the HLP will get nowhere. The question I’m posing is: ‘Could the ‘data revolution’ contribute to supporting African progress?’ and ‘How?’ How do we go about creating the enabling environment of better, usable data, which will allow for sound policy and investment decisions? DI has been calling for a real data revolution that includes poor people, working to build consensus for this at the global policy level. However, I want to bring this blog back to the theme of work being done on the ground in Africa, work which is primarily about people- not just data.

People who can access and use data = progress in Africa

African Statistics Day is not just about helping government collect and develop statistical databases. It should also be about how African citizens can access data and make sense out of it at the community level. Let’s come a few notches down from the global and national level, and look at what statistics actually mean for the average citizen: usually, they mean nothing. In most cases, data may not even be available to them. Where it is, it is often in complicated formats that cannot be easily understood.

A training session for CSOs on aid and budget data, run by DI with partners in 2013

A training session for CSOs on use of aid and budget data, run by DI with partners in 2013

To address the issue of access and use of statistics by communities and people, Development Initiatives (DI)-Africa Hub has a major focus on delivering capacity building training, to help people access, use and analyse data and information (see some examples of projects here and here). Building capacity of citizens is vital for creating a critical mass of demand for good, timely, accurate, and accessible data from government.

Poor statistics and poor data make for both poor policy interventions and poor developmental outcomes. But the paucity of accurate statistics in Africa is not merely a technical problem; it has a massive impact on the welfare of our citizens. It’s about more than improving and investing in better statistics and data collection (though this is especially important, especially as the continent joins the extractive and natural resources club). So that’s my message for African Statistics Day: investment in communities, in both statistical capacity and in skills development, is imperative, if we are to support real progress on the continent.

This movement should not be politicised, or paid lip service to with flimsy, short-term initiatives: we need serious investment, to ensure the accuracy and availability of statistical data and the ability of African citizens to use and understand it.