Improving African national statistical systems will change lives

by Wilbrod Ntawiha


Today, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) member states celebrate Africa Statistics Day 2015. This year’s African Statistics Day focuses on data quality and enhancing the capacity-building of national statistical systems in Africa with the theme: “Better data for better lives: Harnessing modern technology to enhance national statistical systems” and is aligned with the theme of World Statistics Day.

Better data for better lives

Data should be the basis for decision making. Better data relates to better lives through better policies, programmes, and better allocation, accountability and coordination of resources.

With poor data, decision makers are more likely to make less effective and efficient decisions on the allocation of resources and on policies aiming to improve lives especially of the poor. For example without quality data, we cannot tell the exact number of poor people, where they live, when they get out and back into poverty, how targeted policies are changing their lives, learn the best lessons and replicate them in ending poverty.

Data is needed to monitor and measure progress towards achieving sub-national, national, regional and global targets set by our leaders – such as district work plans, national development plans, Africa’s Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The current state of national statistical systems is still lacking in Africa

The demand for quality disaggregated data for sub-national decision-making and service delivery has outstripped the supply of data by the national statistical systems. National statistical systems in Africa need reforms. Many countries are still publishing official statistics under out-dated statistical legislations of the 1960s. They are faced with weaknesses in the capacity to collect, process, manage, analyse, interpret and use statistics. There are inadequate links between statistical systems and policy processes meaning that the data are often not relevant to today’s issues. Statistical production in many countries is not aligned with national planning and budget timetables, and is inadequately coordinated with multiple players.

National statistical services’ data collection is primarily concentrated on censuses and surveys. Until recently little attention and resource has been committed to civil registration systems and other administrative data. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa still have low quality data. Official statistics are normally not timely, have coverage issues (in terms of both indicators and statistical units) and are not comparable over time or with other sources. For example in surveys, only 45% of African countries have conducted one or another form of household survey in the last 3 years. According to the World Bank, only 33% have conducted more than 2 poverty-related surveys in the past 10 years. And only 20% have conducted an agricultural survey in the past 3 years. Just 12 of 55 African countries have comprehensive birth registration and a quarter of African countries have not done a survey since 2008 or earlier. Many such challenges lie ahead for countries to meet the data needs of their national development goals.

Data needs to be improved in order to improve lives. There is need for a data revolution to sustainably improve data systems for collecting vital statistics, including birth data. Investments in civil registration systems, and infrastructure to store and share data, are needed so that we can count people and make people count.

Technology uptake is low in African national statistical systems

The traditional method of data collection that most African statistical systems use, based on paper-based survey forms, is costly, time-consuming, and prone to errors. The usage of mobile devices and the Internet is beginning to replace these methods.

Technology allows statistical processes to meet requirements and expectations such as timeliness of data, accuracy, relevance, coverage, openness and accessibility, cost effectiveness and disaggregation to the lowest institutional unit. For example geospatial technology is an efficient and effective tool for conducting censuses and surveys, because it has desirable features with regard to data collection (such as agricultural, demographic, forestry, urban and rural planning statistics), storing, processing, timeliness, coverage and dissemination.

Only a few national statistical services in Africa have taken up ICT tools in a few projects. For example the office for national statistics in Algeria used optical scanning technology for the exploitation of economic Census questionnaires and CAPI (Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing) in interviews in a number of surveys in 2011.

National statistical services are often over staffed with non-professional personnel, leaving a poor mix of workers. Though they have professional statisticians on their payroll, in many cases they do not get the full complement of other specialists like statistical programmers/data scientists, software engineers, economists, and communication specialists. This staffing problem, among others such as low financing, lack of proper ICT infrastructure; keeps the level of usage and up-take of new technologies low.

Way forward

Quality official statistics could help decision makers develop informed policies that impact millions of people. Improved data sources, sound statistical methods, new technologies and strengthened statistical systems enable better decisions that eventually result in better lives for all of us. The national statistical systems can be enhanced through developing and maintaining appropriate human and modern technology infrastructure assets to ensure better data in Africa.

Arrangements for inter-institutional co-ordination, collaboration, partnerships and networking for capacity building, information and technology sharing among data producers are weak and should be strengthened as part of the statistical reforms. For example Development Initiatives’ development data hub is one of the innovations that statistical offices can partner with in terms of joining up data from the national statistical services and dissemination of official statistics.

Finally, the Africa Data Consensus provides a framework for all countries to rally behind and move ahead in a coordinated and mutually supporting approach towards sustainable data infrastructures that can deliver usable information to all levels of administration and service delivery throughout Africa. This is the meaning of better data for better lives.