For the first time in generations, Africa is spoken of these days with enthusiastic hope: no longer seen as a hopeless morass of poverty, the continent instead is described as “Africa Rising,” a land of enormous economic potential that is just beginning to be tapped.
With Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong, Morten Jerven offers a bracing corrective. Neither story, he shows, is accurate. In truth, most African economies have been growing rapidly since the 1990s—and, until a collapse in the ’70s and ’80s, they had been growing reliably for decades. Puncturing weak analysis that relies too much on those two lost decades, Jerven redraws our picture of Africa’s past, present, and potential.
What used to be 8 Millennium Development Goals are now 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The list of targets has ballooned from 18 to 169. The final list of indicators has not yet been determined. My estimate suggest that just the monitoring such a list would cost about $250 billion over 15 years — or twice what is spent annually on Official Development Assistance globally. In other words, if the list is adopted as suggested and it was to be accompanied be serious measurement, we would have to set aside all ODA to measurement in the first and the second year and then only in the third year would there be any funds to even begin to vaccinate, feed and school children. It is very likely that success and failure in the post-2015 agenda will be measured with deficient and bad data unless the list of targets is radically shortened.
Cheryl Doss, Senior Lecturer in African Studies and Economics at Yale University, argued that we should ask for more data.
When Rabbit asked Winnie the Pooh whether he wanted honey or condensed milk with his bread Pooh excitedly answered, “Both.” But then not to seem greedy, he added, “But don’t bother about the bread, please.”
The debate on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, is reminiscent of a Winnie-the-Pooh-approach to measuring development. Do you want your poverty measure disaggregated by region or by gender? Both, and don’t bother worrying about the measurement please.
I am invited to offer my comments by Aubrey Hubry who argues:
that inadequate infrastructure, lack of market data, and poor policy implementation impede investment in Africa, despite growing opportunities to do so profitably
The event takes place at the Atlantic council (details here) in the context of the US-Africa Leaders Summit. My book, Poor Numbers, was not really written with the concern of how the lack of data affects business decisions, but I enjoy the widening of the conversation of how measurement matters. I am preparing my notes for the discussion.
From the OUP blog, the summary of the key findings of my latest book:
The book offers a reconsideration of economic growth in Africa in three respects. First, it shows that the focus has been on average economic growth and that economic growth has not failed. In particular, the gains made in the 1960s and 1970s have been neglected. Second, it emphasizes that for many countries the decline in economic growth in the 1980s was overstated, as was the improvement in economic growth in the 1990s. The coverage of economic activities in GDP measures is therefore inaccurate. In the 1980s, many economic activities were increasingly missed in the official records thus the decline was overestimated (resulting from declining coverage), and the increase in the 1990s was overestimated (resulting from increasing coverage). The third important reconsideration is that there is no clear association between economic growth and orthodox economic policies. This is counter to the mainstream interpretation, and suggests that the importance of sound economic policies has been exaggerated, and that the importance of the external economic conditions have been devalued in the prevailing explanation of African economic performance.
Simon Fraser University
B.Sc. (Budapest), M.Sc., Ph.D. (LSE)
Morten Jerven has published widely on African economic development, and particularly on the patterns of economic growth and on economic development statistics. His recent book is based on research in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana.
Morten Jerven is an economic historian, with a PhD from the London School of Economics, and has since 2009 been working at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University in