African countries are missing the data needed to drive development

David Pilling at the Financial Times: “When statisticians decided to track how well African countries were doing in moving towards their 2030 UN sustainable development goals, they discovered a curious thing: no one had the faintest idea. More accurately, on average, African governments keep statistics covering only about a third of the relevant data. To be fair, the goals, which range from eradicating poverty and hunger to creating sustainable cities and communities, are overly complicated and sometimes unquantifiable.

The millennium development goals that they superseded had eight goals with 21 indicators. The SDGs have 17, with 232 indicators. Yet statisticians for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which compiled the report, are on to something. African states don’t know enough about their people. 

In this age of mass surveillance, that might seem counterintuitive. Surely governments, not to mention private companies, have too much information on their citizenry? In fact, in many African nations with weak states, big informal economies and undocumented communities, the problem is the reverse. How many people are there in Nigeria? What is the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe? How many people in Kibera, a huge informal settlement in Nairobi, have access to healthcare? The answers to such basic questions are: we don’t really know.  Nigeria last conducted a census in 2006, when the population — a sensitive topic in which religion, regionalism and budget allocations are messily intertwined — came out at 140m. These days it could be 180m or 200m. Or perhaps more. Or less.

President Muhammadu Buhari recently complained that statistics quoted by international bodies, such as those alleging that Nigeria has more people living in absolute poverty than India, were “wild estimates” bearing “little relation to facts on the ground”. The riposte to that is simple. Work out what is happening and do something about it. Likewise, unemployment is hard to define, let alone quantify, in a broken economy such as Zimbabwe’s where cited jobless statistics range from 5 to 95 per cent. Is a struggling subsistence farmer or a street-side hawker jobless or gainfully employed?

For that matter what is the status of a government employee who receives her salary in a useless electronic currency?  According to Seth Berkley, chief executive of the Vaccine Alliance, keeping tabs on unregistered people in the sprawling “slums” of Africa’s increasingly massive megacities, is harder than working out what is going on in isolated villages. If governments do not know whether a person exists it is all too easy to ignore their rights — to healthcare, to education or to the vote. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation found that only eight countries in Africa register more than 90 per cent of births. Tens of millions of people are literally invisible. Mr Ibrahim, a Sudanese billionaire, calls data “the missing SDG”….(More)”