We have briefly mentioned Morten Jerven’s work Poor Numbers before, but it deserves a bit more attention. The book discusses the woeful state of GDP figures in Africa and the issues that arise in making cross-national comparisons between countries whose statistical offices operate very differently (interview here).
Discussing Jerven’s work now is especially timely given current events. Jerven was scheduled to speak at UNECA on statistical capacity in Africa. However, Pali Lehohla of South Africa strongly objected to Jerven’s ideas and led the opposition which ultimately prevented Jerven from speaking. Had he been allowed to present, Jerven’s speech would have summarized the issues thusly:
I would argue that ambitions should be tempered in international development statistics. The international standardization of measurement of economic development has led to a procedural bias. There has been a tendency to aim for high adherence to procedures instead of focusing on the content of the measures. Development measures should be taken as a starting point in local data availability, and statisticians should refrain from reporting aggregate measures that appear to be based on data but in fact are very feeble projections or guesses. This means that it is necessary to shift the focus away from formulas, standards, handbooks, and software. What matters are what numbers are available and how good those numbers are. Comparability across time and space needs to start with the basic input of knowledge, not with the system in which this information is organized. (Jerven, 2013, p.107).
African Arguments gave Jerven a chance to respond to his opposition:
The initial response from many economists working on Africa varied between, ‘so what?…we already know this’, ‘we don’t trust or use official statistics on Africa anyhow’ and ‘I know but what is the alternative?’ Many more scholars in African studies and development studies, who were generally concerned with the long-standing use of numbers on Africa as ‘facts’, were relieved that there was finally someone who sought, not only to unveil the real state of affairs, but genuinely wanted to answer some of the problems that users face when trying to use the data to test their scholarly questions….
We need to rethink the demand for data and how we invest in data in Africa and beyond. My focus has been on Africa because the problem is particularly striking there. To fix the gaps we should first re-think the MDG and other donor agendas for data and do a cost benefit analysis – what are the costs of providing these data and what is the opportunity cost of providing these data? The opportunity cost is often ignored. Local demand for data needs to come into focus. A statistical office is only sustainable if it serves local needs for information. Statistics is a public good, and we need a good open debate on how to supply them.
This is a major issue, and all social scientists–not just economists–should be aware of Jerven’s work. As James C. Scott has pointed out, measurement is a political act.