Fueled by its many natural resources, Africa is growing fast, is finally beginning to reduce poverty and seems headed for success. Or so we think, for there are major problems with its data, problems that call for urgent, game-changing action.
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How would you feel if you were on an airplane and the pilot made the following announcement: "This is your captain speaking. I'm happy to report that all of our engines checked fine, we have just climbed to 36,000 feet, will soon reach our cruising speed, and should get to our destination right on time.... I think. You see, the airline has not invested enough in our flight instruments over the past 40 years. Some of them are obsolete, some are inaccurate and some are just plain broken. So, to be honest with you, I'm not sure how good the engines really are. And I can only estimate our altitude, speed and location. Apart from that, sit back, relax and enjoy the ride." This is, in a nutshell, the story of statistics in Africa. Fueled by its many natural resources, the region is growing fast, is finally beginning to reduce poverty and seems headed for success. Or so we think, for there are major problems with its data, problems that call for urgent, game-changing action.

First, we don't really know how big (or small) many African economies are. In about half of them, the system of "national accounts" dates back to the 1960s (1968, to be precise); in the other half, it is from 1993. This means that measuring things like how much is produced, consumed or invested is done with methods from the times when computers were rare, the Internet did not exist and nobody spoke about "globalization." That is, the methodology ignores the fact that some industries have disappeared and new ones were born.

How badly does this skew the data? Well, to give you an idea, when Ghana used a newer methodology to update its accounts in 2010, it found out that its economy was about 60 percent bigger than it had previously thought -- and the country instantly became "middle-income" in the global ranking. [Old-timers have a neat way to tell when the size of an economy is underestimated in countries with weak institutions: if what the government collects in taxes is equivalent to more than a fifth of the country's "gross domestic product," then gross domestic product is probably larger than what the official numbers show.]

Second, the latest poverty counts for Africa are, on average, five years old. So we only have guesstimates of how the global financial, food and fuel crises have impacted the distribution of income, wealth and opportunities in the region. This is because, to count the poor, you need "household surveys" -- those face-to-face, home visits where people are asked how much they earn, own, know and so on. In fifteen African countries, this has been done only once since 2000. Ironically, technology now allows for the surveys to be done not only more frequently, but continuously. You give families a cell-phone free of charge in exchange for them answering a questionnaire, say, twice a month. And you don't need to ask every household; about three thousand are enough -- that's the beauty of statistical sampling. So, why is it not done? Coming to that in a minute.

Third, "industrial" surveys are even more infrequent than household surveys -- only a handful of African countries have done at least one in the last ten years. This is a pity. Knowing what your producers are doing -- and what keeps them from producing more -- is critical if you want to design policies that increase employment, productivity and economic growth. To be sure, academics, NGOs, development banks and business organizations carry out sporadic surveys of enterprises for one purpose or another -- from understanding how informal jobs are created to selling logistical services. But regular, comprehensive, nation-wide data is, at best, rare. What's true for African employers is also true for African employees. "Labor market" surveys are few and far between -- most workers, remember, are informal and tend to shy away from answering questions by public officials. So when you ask about the unemployment rate in Africa, you are likely to be given a number that means little, is old, or both. And how about the good old "census" -- that once-in-a-while count of a country's entire population? Censuses are the only time when we learn how many we are, how fast we are aging, where we live, how we live and lots of other information that helps governments make smart(er) decisions on things like health care, school construction or crime prevention. Experts say that you should have a census every ten years. Sixteen African countries have fallen behind that tempo -- which means that, at the moment, we don't know much about a third of those who live in the region. Counting people is particularly important in African countries that get income from extracting oil, gas or minerals, which is most of them. That income is supposed to be shared among provinces, counties and municipalities on the basis of their population size -- how that's done in practice if the data is outdated or wrong beats a statistician's guess.

How does one even start tackling a problem like that? The truth is that a lot of money has been invested in improving Africa's statistics. Most of that money came as donations from well-meaning rich countries, and went to fund "institutional development," that is, to train and equip national statistics offices. According to the "Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century" (aka "PARIS21"), between 2009 and 2011 alone, Africa received 700 million dollars to build up its capacity to collect data. That led to some progress, but dismally short of what is needed. Why? Mostly politics. Solution? A mix of democracy and technology.

It is much more difficult to mess with a country's statistics when people are free to complain about it. Democratization has brought a new appetite for information to the average African citizen, much of it expressed through a data-hungry media. The number of recalcitrant governments that gather data but refuse to release it, or release it when it is obsolete-late, is falling -- slowly but surely. There is even talk of inviting independent experts ("high-level technical commissions") to regularly vet whatever official figures are put out. And the legal walls that protect public statisticians from meddling politicians are hardening -- Senegal pioneered the trend in the early 2000s. This is good, because national statistics offices are like central banks: once you recruit the best technicians, you want to step back and let them do their job.

But what will really revolutionize African statistics is communication technology. The continent is embracing cellular telephony with gusto; it is only a question of time before its people can become regular respondents in censuses and surveys. [Disclaimer: this writer works with a team that is trying to do just that through a project code-named, you guessed, "Listening to Africa."] Satellite imagery can now be used to literally see and gauge, from outer space, economic activity in ports, highways and markets. And tracking what people do, search or talk about on the web -- their "data exhaust" -- gives you a sense of what they are up to as workers, consumers and investors. All of this is yet to be deployed in Africa. To fix its data problem, the region should not just bring up to par the statistical systems it currently has; it may also want to leapfrog into tomorrow's systems.

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