Amidst the pandemic, African statistics are better than you think

By on 29/09/2020
Clean data: African statisticians have worked hard to provide a clear picture of the virus’s effects, despite the many challenges of operating in a pandemic. (Photo by Monusco via Wikimedia Commons).

Africa’s statisticians have done a remarkable job of gathering data on the pandemic, say Ghana’s chief statistician and the head of PARIS21. With more funding, they could go much further – enabling governments to respond effectively to the threat of COVID-19.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues its relentless spread, questions have been raised about the availability and reliability of African data on the pandemic. Despite the catastrophic scenarios envisaged by some commentators, who foresaw large numbers of Africans dying in the streets, the continent so far has done relatively well in terms of low COVID-19 infection and death rates. But is the success mainly a ‘data issue’, with missing or poor-quality data obscuring the extent of the problem? Can African data and statistics be trusted, given the supposedly weak state of capacity?  

COVID-19 and African Data

The reality is that African national statistics offices (NSOs) have done a remarkable job in providing data and statistics under extremely difficult circumstances. Nine in ten NSOs in low- and lower-middle-income countries face funding constraints under COVID, yet many African NSOs have been providing additional data to help their governments take difficult decisions.

In Namibia, for example, the NSO is mapping the propagation of the virus throughout the country, while the Niger National Institute of Statistics is producing daily COVID-19 updates and the Ghana Statistical Service has a COVID-19 information hub & trackers covering metrics such as household, business and mobility. So while there are challenges in data collection in African countries – particularly at a time when many statisticians have to work from home – there is also resilience. In fact, the situation with respect to data and statistics in the continent is much better now than a decade ago.

Catching up

Take the World Bank Statistical Capacity Indicator: a composite indicator of the state of data and statistics across countries. It shows that the gap in quality between African data and the rest of the world has narrowed considerably since 2005. In fact, half of the countries that have seen the most progress were in Africa.

Thanks to increasingly pervasive digitisation, government investment and international partnerships – notably with China and India – African countries have made great progress in the quality of national accounts, and are re-measuring the size and structure of their economies more frequently. 

African NSOs are also increasingly subscribing to data standards. These play an important role in fostering transparency, encouraging statistical development, and linking data dissemination to monitoring. In fact, Africa is second only to Europe in subscriptions to the IMF’s data standards initiatives.

Some African NSOs have also used the COVID-19 crisis to pursue bold and innovative public-private partnerships. The Ghana Statistical Service, for instance, has teamed up with Vodafone Ghana and the Flowminder Foundation to use anonymised mobile data to track mobility under lockdown conditions. And the Government of Guinea is using mobile phone ringtones to push public service announcements about the disease. 

Governance and openness

In order for official statisticians to play their role as neutral and trusted arbiters of statistics, they have to enjoy a large measure of independence from government. Yet NSOs in Africa are often seen as highly vulnerable to political interference, undermining trust in their work.

It is true that some African countries suffer this fate, but this is hardly unique to the continent. Political interference – from cherry-picking of favourable statistics to outright manipulation and dismissal of facts – is a pervasive, and growing, worldwide phenomenon. Witness, for instance, recent controversies about official statistics in GreeceArgentina and India, not to mention the row about the US census. Yet only in Africa do these controversies serve to reinforce clichés about widespread governance failure.

In reality, in some respects Africa today stands out among developing regions from a governance perspective. For instance, more than 80% of countries in sub-Saharan Africa have in place statistical laws that conform to the UN’s Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, which highlight transparency and professional ethics. The Statistical Service Act 2019 (Act 1003) in Ghana is one such example. 

Investment, now

As the current COVID-19 pandemic shows us, getting the data right has life and death implications. We need to invest now in reliable and trustworthy data and statistical systems in Africa and beyond. Foreign aid to statistics accounts for only a shameful 0.5% of total foreign aid to Africa. Yet in two out of three countries, aid is more important than domestic resources.

While much remains to be done, Africa’s official statisticians should be given credit for what they have achieved. Generalisations and blunt clichés about the poor shape of African development data only serve to reinforce stereotypes. Instead, what is needed is a renewed commitment by African leaders and their development partners alike to strengthen statistical systems for evidence-based policymaking – giving public servants the information and insights required to improve the lives of their populations.

About the authors:

Samuel Kobina Annim is the government statistician and head of the Ghana Statistical Service. Johannes Jütting is the executive head of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21).

About Samuel Kobina Annim and Johannes Jutting

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