What did we learn from measuring the costs of monitoring the SDGs?

In response to my costing estimate of the MDGs, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network took the initiative to host a group of ‘experts’ to come up with a collective estimate. The group first met in October in Paris and New York, and the final report was published on April 17. The objective of the process and the report varied. Some had the their eyes firmly on the man: providing a ‘useful number’ for the Financing for Development Conference in Addis, while others watched the ball: trying to get as objective cost estimate as possible. What did we learn from the process and the report?

1. The numbers are soft. Very soft.

Ultimately the total number in any such exercise will depend on the multipliers. A survey has a ballpark per household cost. You can use the low end or the high end. Then multiply that with the number of households. Multiply that with the number of countries (193? 139? 77?), and then multiply that with the frequency (Monthly? Quarterly? Annual? Every ten years?). Depending on your requirement you can generate any kind of total number. My advice is to read the report with that in mind. Disregard the headlines, and look at the detail.

2. Annual disaggregated statistics on all indicators are not feasible.

Ultimately we dropped calculating for all countries (only 77) and perhaps most notably, we dropped the ambition of having annual disaggregated survey data. The sample size requirements of having disaggregated data by region, gender, age and what not category is daunting. And remember this. Annual survey data with current survey instruments is not feasible. For poverty data a survey takes 2-3 years from start to end – without completely re-visioning current informational infrastructure such a survey burden is to heavy to carry for a statistical office that has other tasks than reporting on SDGs alone.

3. Want open data? Start with the costs of data.

As I detail in my paper, it is very hard to get actual costs of surveys and censuses. To sift through background documents to find the costs is time consuming, and if you send queries to organizations that do these surveys you can expect generic responses, or that  “we do not share specific cost estimates”. The survey business is a survey business, and detailed cost information today is competitive edge in a bidding process tomorrow. Moreover, to get individual country budget information, on either donor or recipient side, on how much is actually spent on data is difficult.

4. The bottleneck is not funding, but capacity.

If you would ask the technical assistance teams at IMF or the statistical capacity teams at the World Bank how much it would cost to ‘mend the gaps’ in statistical capacity in low income countries, they would reply to you that the problem is not how much you can spend, but how much can be absorbed. International organizations and donors can buy a nice data-set, or send an expert well versed in the international standards of accounting, There needs to be domestic capacity jut to handle receiving the funds and the experts, let alone benefiting from it.

5. Looking like a donor versus looking like a state.

The report is looking like a donor. It is easier to find costs on a survey, but hard to find information on what it would entail to improve administrative statistics. Moving forward we need to keep in mind that monitoring and data is not a goal in itself. Donor decisions and reports matter less, what is important is the quality of the data feeds into decisions at country level. If our focus is mostly monitoring global progress that might actually hamper domestic political accountability.

Posted in Data revolution, MDGs, ODI, PARIS21, SDGs, United Nations | Tagged | 1 Comment

Development by Indicators: Knowledge and Governance

In this workshop organized at Nantes by Boris Samuel and me on May 5 and 6, view 2015 we will investigate the role of indicators in economic development. We will explore how numbers structure knowledge about economic development and how they give rise to social and political processes. Finally we will also shed light the on the importance of numbers for the day-to-day operations of economic development and for global governance.

The questions will be organized under three main umbrellas:

1. Numbers in mobilization: From MDGs to SDGs

There is a need to reflect on where the quantification in development is taking us. The success of quantifiable targets sometimes overshadows the significance of unquantifiable aspects of economic development. The effects of the growing use of indicators in mobilizing for development, cheap and the proliferation of indicators need also to be questioned.

2. Numbers for governance: Ruling by numbers

Are statistics a part of the façade of operating international economic development, or are we really seeing ‘evidence based policy’ in economic development? Are there identifiable benefits of good data and costs of bad data? Which are social and political processes based on the inflation of indicators? Are there any unintended consequences for local development introduced by using global indicators of development?

3. Measuring and governing poverty

What do we know about the poor?  We will address this question by studying the process of defining, measuring and then taking action about aspects of poverty. How does information flow from ‘the poor’ to the informational centers of the world?

The full program is here. Mary Morgan is giving the keynote. It is free to attend for those who register.  Also, for those who are doing work on indicators and their role in development, note this interesting looking call for papers here.

Posted in Data revolution, Gerardo Serra, History, Poor Numbers, Poverty, SDG, Workshop | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Why so grumpy? The datarevolution and its discontents

In “Big Questions for Big Data and what it can do for African Economic Development” I wrote about some of the basic knowledge problems that remain in development statistics, and concluded that, as of yet, Big Data does not seem well equipped in addressing these. I got two kind of grumpy twitter responses from the Open Data Watch and Claire Melamed, who really don’t appreciate if you question the wisdom of the tagline in the data revolution report: a world that counts.

It is not the first time we had a debate on this – see the comment section in the piece I wrote for the Guardian. So what are those sentences?

“Never again should it be possible to say ‘we didn’t know’. No one should be invisible. This is the world we want – a world that counts.”

So for the record, I fundamentally disagree with these sentences. It should always be possible to say that we did not know, to think that we can count everything and therefore know everything is fundamentally wrong. These are not three obscure sentences, it is the tagline of the report, setting out the spirit of the ‘data revolution’. At best this is naive, at worst, it is dangerously misleading.

Posted in Data revolution, MDGs, Poor Numbers, SDGs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Statistical Tragedy in Africa? Take 2

The launch of the special issue in the Journal of Development Studies took place at the Center of Global Development today. All the papers are available free here.

Posted in Africa's Statistical Renaissance, Africa's Statistical Tragedy | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Statistical Tragedy in Africa? Evaluating the Data Base for African Economic Development

On Monday, salve April 6, thumb 2015 – 10:00am to 11:30am the special issue in the Journal of Development Studies: Statistical Tragedy in Africa? Evaluating the Data Base for African Economic Development which I edited with Deborah Johnston is being launched at the Center of Global Development in Washington DC.

Statistician General, National Bureau of Statistics in Nigeria, Yemi Kale and I will both give a keynote. The event is organized and introduced by Amanda Glassman, and a panel discussion in Francisco Ferreira, Chief Economist, World Bank Africa and and Roberto Rosales, Deputy Director, Statistics, International Monetary Fund will follow.

You can register for the event here.

The special issue is the second set of papers following the 2013 conference in Vancouver, where Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It was launched. The first set of papers was published in the Canadian Journal of Development Studies, and are also available as a book with Routledge. The special issue: Measuring African Development: Past and Present is currently freely available.

Below, find the table of contents to the special issue in Journal of Development Studies – which can be accessed here (ungated until 30th of June, 2015).toc-jds jerven & johnston

Posted in Africa Rising, Africa's Statistical Renaissance, Africa's Statistical Tragedy, African Development Bank, Agriculture, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, IMF, Measuring African Development: Past and Present, Poor Numbers, Poverty, World Bank | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Call for papers WEHC 2015: Counting people, understanding economies: global histories of registration and demographic statistics

Gerardo Serra (Sussex) and I are issuing a call for papers for the panel on ‘Counting People, Understanding Economies: Global Histories of Registration and Demographic Statistics’ that we set up for the forthcoming World Economic History Congress in Kyoto (3-7 August 2015).

Interested contributors should contact Gerardo with the title and abstract of the proposed paper by the end of March. 

The abstract of the panel can accessed here.

Posted in Gerardo Serra, Population | Tagged | Comments Off

Africa and Economics. What’s the problem?

Sensitivity to local conditions? Check. World Bank Kenya got it covered.

Right on cue, doctor the World Bank makes a contribution to the debate on whether Economics has an Africa problem (here and here).

(HT: @g33kmate)

It might be that Africa has an economics problem. That is the subject of my next book: Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong.

Posted in Economics, Kenya, World Bank | Tagged , | Comments Off

“Does economics have an Africa problem?” – A rejoinder

Does Economics have an Africa problem? Yes, treatment ed says Griewe Chelwa in a post for the blog Africa is a Country. Chelwa points out that the most important conferences on African economic development routinely are organized outside of Africa. He also notes that this extends to the composition of editorial boards of journals. Both the Journal of Development Economics and the Journal of African Economies are guilty of having no members on their editorial boards who are based in Africa. Chelwa’s conclusion is devastating: “Economics as a discipline is sending a clear message: Africa cannot be a leading participant in the debates that ultimately shape its destiny.”

I offer my reflections in a post for African Arguments. Among other things I suggest that

it matters more how studies are done rather than who did them. I think that the economic discipline is guilty of doing research on Africa that ignores local context and is lacking in policy relevance. Moreover, medical as Gareth Austin has pointed out, ampoule because most models of economic development are derived from studies on Europe and the West, the toolbox of economists is conceptually Eurocentric. This is the subject of my forthcoming book: Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong.

Read the full post here.

Posted in African Economic History, Economics | Tagged , | Comments Off

Public talk in Bordeaux 19 FEB 6 PM: Derrière “l’émergence de l’Afrique”. La croissance, une fiction statistique ?


I am a visiting scholar at “Les Afriques dans le monde” at  Sciences Po Bordeaux in the spring term 2015. This event is public and free, online it is organized by Vincent Bonnecasse – who contributed a chapter in my recent edited volume. There are three speakers: Jean-Phillippe Berrou, find Boris Samuel (who wrote a chapter on Mauritania in my most recent book) and yours sincerely.

Posted in Africa Rising, Africa's Statistical Tragedy, Poor Numbers | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Podcast: How poor numbers undermine the fight against poverty

It is two years since Poor Numbers was published, prescription and I had a nice conversation with Tom Paulson and Gabe Spitzer at Humanosphere. You can listen to the podcast here. We talked about the importance of getting good evidence, but also on the impact the book had and why it also caused some controversy.

Posted in Podcast, Poor Numbers | Tagged , , | Comments Off