Part of The Best Books of 2013 on Africa

Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It

Jerven demonstrates with devastating clarity that African governments produce imprecise economic statistics that should not be trusted. Based on his firsthand observations of a number of bureaucracies that issue economic statistics, Jerven paints a disturbing portrait of how sub-Saharan African governments devise their national accounts. Entire subsectors of some economies are not recorded, and others are assumed not to have changed in several decades. Data often reflect assumptions about production and consumption patterns that are questionable or even demonstrably false. As a result, Jerven claims, national statistics about economic production might be off by as much as 50 percent, probably in the direction of underestimating economic activity. In 2010, when Ghana corrected the methods it used to calculate its GDP, the figure grew by 70 percent. Jerven concludes with a number of useful suggestions for how to remedy the situation, such as encouraging national statistical offices, which tend to rely on occasional efforts to collect lots of information, to instead take more frequent, smaller surveys. But readers who use African statistics will still be left deeply unsettled.

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