Lies, damned lies, statistics, and GDP

On the train to Manchester this morning I finished a terrific book I should really have read long ago. I’m very glad I finally have. It’s Morten Jerven’s The title made me think it was only relevant to African statistics, when in fact anybody interested in GDP and national accounts should read it.

[amazon_image id=”080147860X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Poor Numbers: How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About it (Cornell Studies in Political Economy)[/amazon_image]

The book is short and non-technical, but includes a number of important arguments and examples. Here are the conclusions I take from it:

1. Statistics are the ‘facts’ “states collect to get knowledge about their own economic or social conditions.” Having reliable statistics is a marker of an effective state – “the ability to collect information and taxes are closely related” – and the statistics chosen reflect the power structures and political priorities of states. African states are not effective, their statistics are not reliable. (But this also made me reflect that there is a lot happening in the developed economies for which we have no statistics – and no ability of the state to understand or influence change.)

2. African GDP statistics in the key online databases used by economists – the World Bank, the Penn World Tables, the Maddison database – are inconsistent because of different interpretations of the underlyaing national data, different base years, different price indices. The sources even rank African countries differently in terms of GDP per capita. Econometric work will get different results depending which is used.” Jerven argues that economists need to have a much more detailed understanding of both the data they download and the specifics of individual countries’ circumstances to be able to interpret the numbers.

3. The underlying national level data are unreliable because of a lack of resources and statistical capacity. Surveys are rarely carried out, there is much guesswork, base year changes happen too infrequently, there is political influence.

4. 2 and 3 together mean little reliance can be placed on the standard cross-country regressions using the standard data sets. “These problems undermine any general conclusions drawn about what stimulates or hinders economic development in Africa.’

5. The standard national accounts concepts don’t apply well to developing economies with a large informal sector. The distinction between production and consumption or working and not-working is not as clear. (And may be becoming less clear in developed economies too, as technology blurs these boundaries and working patterns change.)

The book argues that the standard outline of African growth – a dismal 1970s, a better outcome post- structural adjustment remedies, and a recent acceleration in growth is largely ‘illusory’. The recent uplift in particular comes from the World Bank/IMF splicing recent rebased GDP figures onto an earlier series, as Jerven describes it. He argues that more data needs to be collected, in regular surveys, to enable both good statistics and an effective state knowing what is happening in the economy and to its tax base. He also argues strongly for greater transparency by national statistical offices but especially by the international agencies such as the World Bank and IMF, whose say-so determines the methods used to create the statistics and the world’s interpretation of what is happening in each economy.

“Accounting for the national economy is fundamental for government accountability. Without reliable macro data, political transparency is hard to imagine. …. Numbers are too important to be ignored and the problems surrounding the production and dissemination of numbers too serious to be dismissed.”

So don’t make my initial mistake of thinking this is a bit of a specialist book. It’s a fascinating and important read.

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Big data meets humanitarian response

Some time ago I co-authored a report (for the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation) with Patrick Meier on the use of mobiles in emergencies and disasters. Patrick has just released a whole book on this subject, going much wider than the original report, .

The technology has already moved on considerably – the Big Data phenomenon, for one thing. Importantly, there’s a chapter covering verification techniques; while we found in the original work that crowd-sourced data (as it wasn’t yet called when we first wrote about this) was often more accurate than ‘official’ information, the more verification the better. There’s also a chapter on digital activism – the book’s website sets out all the chapters with brief summaries.

Digital Humanitarians looks like it has lots of examples and it certainly covers some very important and timely questions. Patrick blogs at iRevolution and his latest post talks about the book.

[amazon_image id=”1482248395″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response[/amazon_image]

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Eating people is wrong

A proof copy of Cormac Ó Gráda’s  has arrived in the post, and it all looks terrific. I’ve skimmed the title essay, the point being that not all famines result in cannibalism, raising the question – why not? What cultural shifts or social norms might account for the different experiences concerning “one of the human race’s darkest secrets.”

[amazon_image id=”0691165351″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future[/amazon_image]

The book ends with a reflection on Amartya Sen’s observation in his famous book  (and again in ) that eliminating famine is ‘easy’, but eliminating hunger is not, and we shouldn’t pretend it is so. The task is “constrained by vested interests, by power politics, by poverty, by ignorance, by cynicism and by false analysis.”

Can’t wait to read the bits in the middle. Probably not right after our Christmas lunch.

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Well-being and development

Yesterday I attended the London launch of the annual UNDP Human Development Report – the title this year is . The report notes the combination of advances in human development over the years – for most people in most countries – with a strong sense of precariousness in many places. This is not only because of economic uncertainty but also the risk of natural disasters, violence, corruption, ill health, industrial accidents. Poverty leaves people ill-equipped to respond to any of these shocks, and some groups such as the very old or young, or women or minorities, are particularly vulnerable.

One of the panellists was Richard Layard, talking about his new co-authored book , which emphasises mental health as an over-looked but vital issue for people’s well-being. In his comments he said mental ill-health was responsible for more misery than unemployment or poverty in the rich countries, and possibly in poor countries too (although I think they are correlated). He described  as “an appalling concept”: a sense of meaning in life is more fundamental than material needs, according to Lord Layard.

He went on to claim that recent well-being research in China shows that the least happy people are those who move from countryside to town, and seemed to be saying this should call into question China’s emphasis on economic growth. While China has certainly paid a high environmental price for industrial growth, and is characterised by great inequality and authoritarian politics, I would certainly challenge the Layard argument at this point. As Khalid Malik, the Director of the HDR pointed out, those discontents who move from countryside to town, to those grim-seeming jobs in factories, don’t want to return to the village.

What’s more, traditional rural societies usually have a gender hierarchy that makes towns far more attractive for women. This point emerged in the recent thoughtful BBC2 programme on garment manufacture in Bangladesh, Clothes to DIe For. Despite the Rana Plaza tragedy, young women still wanted factory jobs.

So why the higher self-reported dissatisfaction by Chinese urban migrants? I don’t know whether the research was able to rule out causality issues like whether the individuals were more dissatisfied and restless to start with, or whether there is something subtle going on with their answers to survey questions.

Of course one of the key attractions of the HDR is that the Human Development Index is exactly a measure that reduces the focus on GDP in favour of an indicator based on , the resources and attributes needed to live a fulfilling life. The top five countries this year are Norway, Australia, Switzerland, Netherlands and the US. If you adjust for income inequality, the US slips 23 places and Germany becomes number 5. The expected quintet of sub-Saharan African countries (Niger, DRC, CAR, Chad and Sierra Leone) are ranked bottom. (Somalia, South Sudan and North Korea would be down there if there were data available.)

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Corruption and consumption

Teju Cole’s  is an absolutely terrific book – his  is now on my wish list. It is a portrait of Nigeria – Lagos, rather – by a returned Nigerian. One of his main preoccupations is the absolutely pervasive bribery, which he tries to resist but rarely successfully; another the texture of institutional failure and what that means for the country – and how it is linked to the absence of a sense of why history is important. Highly relevant reading for anybody interested in development economics, not to mention a wonderfully written, moving, fascinating book.

[amazon_image id=”0571307922″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Every Day is for the Thief[/amazon_image]

Cole writes: “For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money or alms – the categories are fluid – is not thought of in moral terms. It is either seen as a mild irritant, or as an opportunity. It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less than what money is there for.”  This is subtly different from Katherine Boo’s explanation for corruption in her book in life in an Indian slum, , where she shows that people are too poor to give up any opportunity to make some money.

Other snippets from : “One goes to the market to participate in the world. As with all things that concern the world, being in the market requires caution. The market – as the essence of the city – is always alive with possibility and danger. Strangers encounter each other in the world’s infinite variety, vigilance is needed. Everyone is there not merely to buy or sell but because it is a duty.”

“The oil and gas business rakes in lurid profits, there has been a great increase in cellphone use, and the banking sector is frenetic. The newspapers are full of mergers and acquisitions. These are the limits of the boom. It is good news in the sense that increased commerce is creating jobs, that the economy is active, and certain practical needs of the people are being met. Things are not as stagnant as they were in the dark days of the early and mid-90s. But there are now mores erious discrepancies in income levels, even among people with comparable educational qualifications. There is little incentive for people to go into professions that are not lucrative. Consumption, among those who can afford it, is conspicuous.”

And you ask, as I suppose you are meant to, who are the thieves.

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