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Going Missing: Filling the Gaps in African GDP Data

Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014

On Nov. 5, 2010, Ghana Statistical Service, the country’s government statistics office, announced that it was revising its gross domestic product (GDP) estimates upward, and as a result Ghana’s GDP per capita almost doubled. The country was upgraded in an instant from a low- to lower-middle-income country. A sense of bewilderment and confusion arose in the development community. When did Ghana really become a middle-income country? What about comparisons with other countries? Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa, struck a dramatic tone in an address to a conference organized by Statistics South Africa, calling the state of data collection on the continent “Africa’s statistical tragedy.”

The real tragedy was that we did not know how little we knew about income and growth in Africa. Observers and analysts have for too long taken the numbers at face value, but there is a large gap between the economic realities on the African continent and the numbers that purport to describe it. ...

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