Why Numbers Matter: Efforts Are Being Ramped Up to Improve the Availability and Reliability of Economic Data on Africa. Could This Aid Policy-Making?

By Parker, Mushtak | African Business, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Why Numbers Matter: Efforts Are Being Ramped Up to Improve the Availability and Reliability of Economic Data on Africa. Could This Aid Policy-Making?


Parker, Mushtak, African Business


The oft-quoted adage "lies, damned lies, and statistics" pertains to the perceived or actual persuasive powers of numbers --data to be precise. Whether it is for governments, businesses and individuals, data has the potential to be the great enabler or deal breaker.

In emerging countries data deficits in government decision-making and economic planning have in many instances slowed down the much-needed development process.

"Timely and reliable statistics," stresses Samer Hijazi, Partner at Grant Thornton, the international auditing and advisory firm, "can help governments make policy decisions which have a positive impact on people's lives. African markets can often be quite volatile, being influenced by rapid economic change and market upheavals due to regional instability. Governments can only react to these developments in a positive way if they have access to data which is accurate but also timely."

The oracles of data are well-resourced global agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the Basel Committee for Banking Supervision, the United Nations and its various agencies, and regional development banks. They are supported by national statistics organisations, independent academic institutions and other specialised agencies.

When it conducts Article IV consultations on its various member countries and financial sector assessment programmes (FSAPs) on the financial services sector, the IMF often relies on the data projections and assessments of its own staff, especially in the absence of reliable, independent and transparent local data collection systems and policy analytical tools. This is revealing of a lack of data collection capacity in emerging markets.

The importance of quality data collection and dissemination is high on the agenda of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, the successor to the Millennium Development Goals initiative, which ended in 2015. This is not only to help governments make better economic and development policy decisions, but also to empower citizens to better hold their political and economic leaders to account.

In Africa, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) started publishing its country profiles in March 2016, albeit for just 20 countries initially. The intention is to publish "periodic assessments and recommendations focusing on policy analysis, regional integration and economic transformation," that will provide "a tool for forecasting and risk analysis."

Mismatch

The state, quality and challenges of data in Africa vary from country to country. South Africa has perhaps the most effective public data collection infrastructure. But often there is a mismatch between good data and government action.

Take the example of youth unemployment, which is huge in South Africa--63% of 15-24-year-olds are not in any form of education, employment or training and have very few skills.

"When we analyse this in conjunction with economic data [which feeds the employment data], then we see that there has been a downturn in the manufacturing, agriculture and mining sectors, which could employ unskilled young people. We need policies to stimulate these sectors, thereby creating jobs," says Mienke Mari Steytler, head of public affairs at the Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg.

The ECA profiles are the latest in a succession of country profiles on Africa published by a host of peer organisations. A survey of some of the debut ECA profiles by this author suggests that they are useful but not as exhaustive and specialised as the IMF/World Bank ones. Their aim of providing "a valuable and unique source of comparative data for academics, civil society and analysts" is highly ambitious.

The reality is that the ECA has its work cut out in achieving its mandate and new agenda in trying to achieve harmonisation of data and information; strengthening the capacity of national statistical systems for data collection, analysis and forecasting; and effective assessment and monitoring of macroeconomic and social policy, development planning and job creation. …

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