Morten Jerven’s “Poor Numbers” and Improving Statistical Capacity in African Countries

I don’t know about you but in the recent past, I had thought the debates in international development in this century had become rather stale. We had moved from Africa the “Hopeless Continent“, “Africa’s Growth Tragedy“, the continent of the “Bottom Billion” and the Trade vs. “Dead Aid” debate, to “Africa is Rising”, Africa “the Hopeful Continent“, Africa “the Next Frontier”, Africa “the Continent of Opportunity” and so on, all heralding Africa’s recent economic “successes” and the vast opportunities that lay ahead. Admittedly, some have adopted a more cautious approach to the overly optimistic Africa-is-Rising narrative.

In the midst of this heated rising- or not-rising-yet debates, the economic historian at the Simon Fraser university, Morten Jerven, burst onto the scene with his position that “we have no idea if Africa is Rising” because we can’t trust the numbers. I came upon Jerven’s work sometime last year through several fascinating academic and op-ed articles he wrote about development statistics and more recently, his foray into the Africa-Rising debate. Coincidentally this week, Jerven was at my department to talk about his recently published book, Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What  to do About It, in a very “lively and refreshing” (words used by at least three people who attended) seminar.

The main  thrust of his argument is that statistics on African economic development (estimates and growth series on poverty, income and population) are unreliable because of the poor statistical capacity of many Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries from which data on these indices are derived. He notes that it is these data compiled by severely under-equipped national statistical agencies that are used by international financial institutions and development agencies of rich countries.  Jerven points that in extreme cases such as Somalia where economic data is not always available, the World Bank sometimes adds up economic data from neighbours Kenya and Sudan, calculates an average from these, and then uses this average to make projections about Somalia!

Jerven posits further that the Strucutral Adjustment Program (SAP) of the 1980s had a devastating impact on the institutional capacity of such statistical agencies, and that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agenda arguably further aggravated the situation because it put pressure on stretched and poorly-equipped statistical offices to prepare reports on social statistics related to the MDGs. This sort of pressure for specific data is symptomatic of a problematic trend towards collection of “ad-hoc data” by poorly equipped agencies, as the basis of “evidence-based policy” which in actuality ends up being “policy-driven evidence”, says Jerven. He thus makes a convincing case for improving the national statistical capacity of individual African countries in order to generate more accurate and reliable data, which he argues, have a huge impact on the welfare of citizens in Sub-Saharan African countries.

Indeed, the fact that a number of African countries including  Nigeria, are presently reviewing their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) base estimates which is certain to increase their national income, arguably confirms some of his core arguments. We are all familiar with how Ghana overnight, transitioned from lower-income to middle-income status on the 5th of November 2010 after the revisions bumped its GDP up by 60%. Nigeria’s GDP rebasing currently underway could see a huge rise in national income by 60% from $247 billion to $395.2 billion according to the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics. Jerven says this revision could capture other economic sectors previously excluded which he equates to “40 Malawis (that) exist inside the Nigerian economy”. That is profound!

One important question however, is that even if the numbers are more accurately captured in these GDP revisions, and we realise that many SSA countries we hitherto thought of as “poor” or low-income countries, are actually closer to “emerging” or middle-income status, what do these numbers really mean for poverty reduction and human development? Are the poor and deprived in these countries leaving the poverty trap enmasse into middle class status? The statistics may be getting better, but are people’s lives getting any better? Importantly, what implications do these revisions have for the very definition of poverty and deprivation —  would these concepts need to be revised and redefined too? These are fundamental questions that policy makers, development experts and researchers ought to, and are hopefully thinking about.

In the meantime, I got my own copy of Jerven’s book signed. 😀



Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (I)

It was with utter astonishment that the audience at Kofar Sauri Sharia court in Katsina on that fateful afternoon earlier this month, listened to the 12 year old pupil, Sani Musa, charged with theft, tell the court that he had to steal some metal scrap, in order to get money to enable him continue with his studies. He shocked the court further by producing the books, schoolbag and other school materials which he bought with the money obtained from disposing of the scrap metal. Family members testified to the court that Sani had been complaining over a lack of school materials and acknowledged him to be “hardworking, intelligent and… the best student of his school”. The court subsequently acquitted Sani Musa and resolved to shoulder his needs in school henceforth.

Now this situation of a promising pupil, keen and eager to learn but left in want of necessary school materials is one faced by thousands of young people in Nigeria. Sani Musa belongs to a youth demographic, under the age of 30 years fast becoming a “youth bulge” in developing countries, a situation where a large share of the population is comprised of children and young adults. According to the World Bank, nearly 70% of Africa’s over 1 billion people are under 30 years. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, leads the pack with a “very young age structure” where two-thirds of 164 million Nigerians are under the age of 30.

Countries like Nigeria, have the opportunity to turn this youth bulge into a “demographic dividend” or active and productively engaged youthful population, that can power economic growth and development otherwise, this bulge is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode into a youth “disaster” which in the face of scarce economic opportunities become disillusioned and frustrated, imperiling an already fragile socio-political stability.

Diagram the demographic stress of countries around the world. Nigeria has been placed in the “Extreme” category. Source: Population Action International (PAI)

How to effectively engage the “youth bulge” is the current zeitgeist – theme in the air – featuring prominently in many international conferences on Africa. According to the conventional wisdom in this zeitgeist, this rapidly growing youth demographic can become a demographic dividend with adequate education, employment and economic opportunities. The onus of providing such opportunities generally lies with governments and we are all too familiar with how Sub-Saharan African leaders have continuously fallen short of these responsibilities. The premise here is that our predominant focus on the central role of government in providing these opportunities and government’s glaring shortcomings has made us gloss-over the role non-government actors such as parents, communities and not-for-profit groups can and should play in complementing government efforts to ensure our youth bulge in Nigeria translates into a demographic dividend so that young people like Sani Musa have a future to look forward to.

Nigeria’s population pyramid, showing the “youth bulge” at the base.

The importance of education to a country’s overall progress cannot be overemphasized. According to a 2006 IMF report, “the skills of the labor force, built largely during childhood and youth, are an important determinant of a country’s overall investment climate”. These skills are built when primary, secondary and tertiary education opportunities are provided to young people. Nigeria’s challenges in providing education are well documented, with literacy rates of the 15-24 age range at 65%-75% for females and males with stark regional variations between the Northern and Southern parts of the country. While enrolment and completion rates have increased for primary education, the enrolment rate remains low for secondary education, at 25.8% according to World Bank 2010 figures.

Importantly, very few of these have access to quality education – across all three levels. Decaying equipment and facilities, poorly qualified teachers sometimes barely able to speak English, poorly equipped universities and tertiary institutions have all resulted in consecutive mass national failure in secondary school leaving certificate exams – up to 98% in the 2009 NECO exams – and half-baked graduates from tertiary institutions, at best unable to write formal application letters and at worst lacking transferable skills, for a career path they are already uncertain of. Poor funding, corruption and persistent systemic decay of the education sector are all key factors resulting in a poorly educated and largely unskilled youth demographic.

Following closely is the challenge of providing adequate employment and economic opportunities in order to engage the youth productively to power economic and human development. According to World Bank economist Justin Yifu Lin, “one basic measure of a country’s success in turning the youth bulge into a demographic dividend is the youth (un)employment rate.” Yet, Nigeria is saddled with almost 20 million unemployed people, with about 2 million new entrants into the dispirited realm of the unemployed each year, according to the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics. Unemployment among the under-30 age group is much higher at about 37.7% though civil society groups place the figure closer to 50%.

Of course youth unemployment is a not a phenomenon exclusive to Nigeria or Sub-Saharan Africa as many developed countries, notably Greece, Spain and Portugal are plagued by high youth unemployment rates (49.3%, 48.9% and 34.1% resp.) with the recent global economic downturn. However, if countries like Nigeria are to avert a demographic disaster already incubating a lost generation vulnerable to drug addiction, militancy, insurgency and general disillusionment, then it is imperative that this youthful population is productively engaged.

Youths on a rampage during the 2011 post-elections riots in Nigeria

Employment generation is a function of adroit economic policies, government job creation schemes, existence of an enabling environment — infrastructure, law and order and an efficient regulatory system – and private sector initiatives, flourishing within this environment to create job opportunities.

Jobseekers in Abuja in June 2012 waiting to submit application forms for entry into the Civil Service

A skilled populace, given the right incentives interacts favorably with this business-friendly environment to be productive citizens. However, Nigeria remains a country with immense untapped potential – vibrant population, large market – and an even greater potential of harnessing all these for economic prosperity, but for the most part, the full transition from “potential” to “actuality” is yet to takeoff. The 2012 Ease of Doing Business Index ranks Nigeria 133 out of 183 economies in terms of starting a business (116), getting electricity (176), and access to credit (78). This difficult terrain not only stifles entrepreneurial innovation but has engendered a survival-of-the-most-connected fierce competition for scarce and “lucrative” public sector jobs. Lofty poverty alleviation programs have characterized government employment generation initiatives though President Jonathan’s You WiN!  – Youth Enterprise with Innovation in Nigeria – intervention of supporting aspiring entrepreneurial youth holds some hopeful prospects for employment generation.

While these sobering facts portend bleak prospects for the teeming youthful population in Nigeria, there are specific junctures where non-government actors could stage interventions in complementing government efforts in providing education, employment and economic opportunities, to turn this impending youth-bulge disaster into a dividend.


Related Posts:

Managing the “Youth Bulge” in Nigeria (II)

Beaming the Spotlight Where it Matters Most

Russian president-elect Vladmir Putin crying at his “victory” speech, with outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev behind him

With tears streaming down his cheeks, Vladmir Putin outgoing Prime Minister and now President-elect of Russia declared with great conviction, that his victory in the just concluded presidential elections was the outcome of an “open and honest battle”. While his speech attracted cheers and ovation from many supporters, members of the opposition like prominent anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, claim that Putin shed crocodile tears out of fear of public backlash from elections marred by irregularities. Not surprisingly, the international media has placed the Russian elections in the spotlight albeit with a cynical slant of how they were skewed heavily in favour of an easy Putin victory over other candidates. In all this, African observers like me on the fringe cannot help wondering if half of the critical scrutiny were directed towards elections in many Sub Saharan African countries, where it is needed most, then perhaps there might be considerable improvements in aspects of our electoral democracy in Africa.

Of course it will be naive to dismiss the importance of Russia as a major global player. Despite the collapse and disintegration of the defunct Soviet Republic into present day Russia and several other countries and its downgrade from a near equal of the US during the Cold War era Russia to middle income, developing country status, Russia is still the largest country in the world in terms of land mass; it has a huge population; it is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and one of the BRICS. Russia is a major player in geo politics especially due to its typically diametric stance with many Western countries on key international security issues such as Iran’s nuclear activity. Thus, elections in Russia are bound to attract global attention and scrutiny compared to say, elections in Malawi, Gambia or Cameroon.

The 85 year old incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal. It is widely believed that he is much older than he claims to be.

That said, the victory of Putin in the elections came as no surprise to any keen observer of events in Russia, whom it is widely believed was the real power wielder as Prime Minister to Dmitry Medvedev. According to a poll conducted in September 2009 by the Levada Center in which 1,600 Russians took part, 13% believed Medvedev held the most power, 32% Putin, and 48% both. Nevertheless, Putin’s overbearing influence and authority pale into insignificance in comparison with some of our octogenarian, yet energetic African despots – the Wades, the Biyas and the Mugabes.

Incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal for instance, despite being well over 85 years old and having exhausted his constitutionally permitted term limits, went to great lengths to ensure he contested in the February 26th 2012 Presidential elections. Wade altered the constitution in 2011 to enable him contest for a third term, and banned some rival candidates like Grammy award-winning singer Youssou N’dour from contesting. Wade’s violent crackdown on mass protests that trailed his refusal to back down which led to deaths of innocent, unarmed civilians betray his desperation to cling to power against popular will, willing to risk to his democratic credentials as a democratic reformer, jeopardizing the stability and cohesion of Senegal which has been a beacon of democratic stability in the region. Wade remains adamant despite entreaties by other African strong-men like former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo who have tested, tried and given up on the tenure elongation bid.

Certainly Putin’s strong-man tactics, “creeping authoritarianism”, and manipulation of the political system comes nowhere near Wade’s open secretive plans of paving the way for his son to ascend the Presidency once he secures his re-election bid constitutionally or extra-constitutionally. Nor does it compare with Joseph Kabila’s blatant nepotism in ensuring that his twin sister and brother were both elected to the parliament of the Democratic Republic of Congo in January 2012 in elections described as flawed and “chaotic” by local and international observers.

The criticism of the presidential elections in Russia stem from procedural and “voting irregularities” which ensured Putin’s victory was secured by fair or foul means, mostly the latter in the eyes of the international media, international election observers and Western governments. These irregularities included the “limited electoral choice” for the electorate according to Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors, “the conditions under which the campaign was conducted, the partisan use of government resources and procedural irregularities on election day” according to the official US statement, the dominance of the media and campaign space by Putin to the detriment of other candidates, and heavy handed tactics by the security forces towards those protesting the results.

Despite analysts’ and pundits’ claims that the margin of Putin’s victory was inflated and about 50% and not the 64% of the vote, it will by no means compare to the audacious inflation of figures in some parts of Nigeria during the 2011 Presidential elections. Some states in the South-East and South-South – the incumbent’s home base – recorded between 86%, according to the EU election monitors and up to 98% voter turn-out, a near impossibility in elections as the highest possible turn-out for the most enthusiastic and politically conscious electorate is usually pegged by political scientists at around 60 to 70%.

Of course this does not excuse the irregularities or manipulation of the electoral system by Putin as there is room for substantial improvement. Putin also stressed the need for a thorough investigation of all election violations. However, even the critics credit the Russian government for marginal improvements in elections in Russia. The US government acknowledged the Russian government’s efforts to reform the system while the French foreign minister in his reaction to Putin’s victory stated: “The election was not exemplary … [but] … there was no brutal repression during the campaign, as might have been the case in other times,”. In addition, the installation of 200,000 webcams at polling booths to prevent ballot stuffing and the ability of citizens to engage in peaceful protests are an indication of the improvements in the Russian public sphere unlike what obtained earlier.

(“Emperor”) Paul Biya of Cameroon, now in his sixth term in office

However, the key point here is that more countries around the world require this scrutiny and critical dissection of the electoral system which perhaps might propel their respective governments to conduct relatively credible elections at least that would meet minimum international standards. If the elections and “election-like events” in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa even measured-up to the standard of the Russian elections, warts and all, then many of our political problems might be more manageable.

Many African incumbents and closet autocrats get away with the farce and caricature of elections which consolidate their firm grip on power because they are able to escape the radar in their nefarious activities. For instance, with the little media attention the 2011 elections in Cameroon received, how many can even recall that Paul Biya, the autocrat in civilian garb (infamously nicknamed “The Sphinx”) has firmly held onto the reins of power in Cameroon for about 30 years, deftly succeeding himself in every election?

Clearly, there is undue emphasis on the elections in Russia to the detriment of elections in other Southern countries in the world, especially in Sub Saharan Africa where such attention, scrutiny and spotlight by the international community might actually assist civil society groups and activists in pressurising African leaders to embark on genuine electoral reforms. This is because there is a wide held view that many African leaders hardly respond to the demands of their electorate alone, so this international media scrutiny could assist civil society groups in this regard.