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Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It (Cornell Studies in Political Economy) [Paperback]

by Morten Jerven
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 19, 2013 080147860X 978-0801478604 1

One of the most urgent challenges in African economic development is to devise a strategy for improving statistical capacity. Reliable statistics, including estimates of economic growth rates and per-capita income, are basic to the operation of governments in developing countries and vital to nongovernmental organizations and other entities that provide financial aid to them. Rich countries and international financial institutions such as the World Bank allocate their development resources on the basis of such data. The paucity of accurate statistics is not merely a technical problem; it has a massive impact on the welfare of citizens in developing countries.

Where do these statistics originate? How accurate are they? Poor Numbers is the first analysis of the production and use of African economic development statistics. Morten Jerven's research shows how the statistical capacities of sub-Saharan African economies have fallen into disarray. The numbers substantially misstate the actual state of affairs. As a result, scarce resources are misapplied. Development policy does not deliver the benefits expected. Policymakers' attempts to improve the lot of the citizenry are frustrated. Donors have no accurate sense of the impact of the aid they supply. Jerven's findings from sub-Saharan Africa have far-reaching implications for aid and development policy. As Jerven notes, the current catchphrase in the development community is "evidence-based policy," and scholars are applying increasingly sophisticated econometric methods—but no statistical techniques can substitute for partial and unreliable data.

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Editorial Reviews


"Increasingly, scientists turn to the large statistical databases of international bodies when testing favoured hypotheses to control for growth and economic development. They might hesitate after reading Poor Numbers. . . . This book offers fascinating, disturbing insights for anyone interested in the role of numbers in the social sciences. For those using global economic databases, it should be required reading."—Nature (11 July 2013)

"This important book attempts to systematize what most quantitative practitioners in Africa generally understand: African macroeconomic data are poor. . . . Using a variety of sources that include current surveys of in-country statistical collection agencies and firsthand historical accounts, Jerven outlines several root causes of the data problem, which include Africa's colonial heritage and the more recent, structural adjustment policies. He continues his analysis by exploring how data are consciously shaped by both local and international politics and international aid agencies. Specifically, Jerven is critical of World Bank transparency and its unwillingness to provide him with quantitative methodologies of its official data compilation. . . . This volume opens up a venue for a research paradigm that could lead to much-needed improvements in the collection of African data. Summing Up: Highly recommended."—Choice (August 2013)

"I found Poor Numbers illuminating and disturbing at the same time—I think that is exactly what Morten Jerven intended. It is well written, even elegant in some places. Jerven's recommendation that more funding be put into statistical services to do baseline surveys and field-based data collection makes a lot of sense."—Carol Lancaster, Dean of the School of Foreign Service and Professor of Politics, Georgetown University, author of Aid to Africa: So Little Done, So Much to Do

"In Poor Numbers, Morten Jerven takes on the issue of inaccurate macroeconomic data in Sub-Saharan Africa. First, by describing collection methods, he shows quite convincingly that the data are pretty dreadful, and perhaps more damning, that they may include systematic and predictable flaws linked to the way in which they are collected and aggregated. Jerven demonstrates that basic national accounts data are too poor to assess very basic characteristics of African economic performance since independence. This short elegant book is fascinating and strikes me as a must-read for any social scientist interested in African political economy and policy."—Nicolas van de Walle, Cornell University, author of African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, 1979–1999

About the Author

Morten Jerven is Assistant Professor in the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University.

Product Details

  • Series: Cornell Studies in Political Economy
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (February 19, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080147860X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801478604
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.4 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #179,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bad data February 1, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Bravo to Morten Jervens on a fine and informative book. May the stats get better!!!!

I just finished reading this book. Since I had read other things by author, I did not discover anything that I did not already know. For those who are not aware of his work, this book will come as quite informative and for some hopefully a wake up call. My only quibble with the book is that it too nice. Probably, this is a question of personality and style. He references epistemological and methodological problems that arise from using bad data (bad plus noisy data is, in my view, a priori junk); however, he does not, borrowing from a Seinfeld episode, bother to name names as much as I think he should have. In my view, there is no justification for someone who is methodologically sophisticated using bad data to draw inferences about whether institutions/regime types impact economic development and public goods distribution. There is no basis for claiming that there is a positive and robust relationship between post-structural adjustment, democratization and an uptick in economic growth in Africa based on national income data. As Jerven shows clearly, the problems with the data is just too much to rest such an inferential oomph onto. Even with pristine data, this proposition is problematic. It is down right silly with bad data! In a nutshell, I like the book a lot and see it as having a major impact but I would have liked it to have been more forceful in its criticism of those who have used bad data and should have known better
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars at last a book on important item December 24, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
after 40 years working on developpement planning in african countries I find a book dealing with poor or even false basic statistics.
National population census have disappeared. Birth ratios, disease ratios , population structures are extrapolated from neighbouring countries and vice versa. Income end expenses family budgets are extrapolated from extremely small samples.
the reality is that 40 years ago a socio-economist expert stayed from 2 to 3 years on the spot either in the bush or in shelter towns to get technical or socio-economical datas for a single project. 20 years later the World Bank standards were a week.
Now people are allocated in the best case 3 days for focus group meetings with so called representative sample.

Is is very necessary that other books on same topic be published on an hidden scandal
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poor Numbers March 3, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Poor Numbers is a very good and easy read devoid of technical jargon and therefore accessible to many people (I have requested the library at my university to order a copy). Your anecdotes on statistical procedures in specific countries were highly illuminating - didn't know that there was a bit of a guessing game around Nigeria's population numbers, for instance.

My hope is that the recommendations in your book will filter through so that proper data collection becomes a focal point of good governance.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I've done a masters in Economic History and International Development and I found Jerven's book Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It (Cornell Studies in Political Economy) to be a well-written overview of a pressing issue that no one has ever talked about before. The subject matter is weighty and data-centric. But the author's clear and compelling writing style, as well as entertaining anecdotes from his research trips throughout sub Saharan Africa, make this a first-rate read both for experts and novices curious about international development, aid and global inequality. Jerven does an excellent job of answering the subtitle's question: "How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It." Hope he writes more soon. Kudos!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By ncooty
If you work in or are interested in international development--in Africa or elsewhere--read this book.

By (i) assessing the techniques and influences related to the generation of economic data for Africa and (ii) placing that information in a cultural and historical context, Jerven has provided an exceptionally useful and cautionary view of the tragically poor state of economic data from most of the African continent. Most readers will likely be astonished at the arbitrariness of economic indicators from these countries and the extent to which enormous levels of measurement error are ignored by public institutions, academics, and other users. The book predominantly comprises reviews of economic history (mostly from 1950s to present) and insights from his interviews and surveys involving international financial institutions (e.g., World Bank and IMF) and officials/ civil servants from statistical agencies and central banks in 20-something African countries over about 4.5 years.

He advocates (i) strengthened and consistent support (funding, facilities, staff, technical assistance, etc.) to autonomous or semi-autonomous national statistical agencies--both for collection and reporting, (ii) more locally appropriate measures of economic indicators, with a greater focus on data quality (e.g. regular, accurate surveys) than comprehensiveness (e.g.
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