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.
Since the publication of my book “Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It,” a healthy debate on the meaning of development statistics in the African context has taken place. Predictably, the emphasis in the media has been on the politics of the numbers. Inspired by the old phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics,” commentators and headlines have focused on the dark forces that tamper with numbers and consciously mislead the public discourse on development Africa.