Distrust for bad numbers: sub-Saharan Africa’s newest and biggest development and governance predicament

Bad numbers about hunger, poverty, food security and food self-sufficiency in any country are not innately bad news.
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Since the year 2000, sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has been experiencing somewhat impressive economic growth. Of note is that between 2004 and 2014, Africa experienced more than 5% yearly economic growth rates.1 On December 3, 2011, Africa Rising, a positive but stereotype-shrouded qualification was enrolled by The Economist to construct and weave optimistic, approving and comforting narratives around the growth and other commendable developments in SSA. This reframing term markedly contrasts with the previous christening of the sub-continent by the same magazine as the “the hopeless continent” in 2000.

The Africa Rising narratives were about numbers (data), specifically good numbers pointing to a growing middle class, improving health conditions of Africans, poverty reduction, economic growth, improved political stability, accountability, and many others. The numbers on which the Africa Rising narratives rested were mainly supplied by Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The numbers, which were pointing in the right direction birthed landmark signature conferences speaking to arrays of issues around and at the core of the growths in SSA. One such event was the conference of May 29-30, 2014, themed “Africa Rising-Building to the Future,” which was held in Maputo, Mozambique, and was jointly convened by the Government of Mozambique and the IMF.

The numbers at the core of the Africa Rising narratives also gave rise to grant-funded research and institutes, such as The Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification, which was conceived “to provide pathways out of hunger and poverty for smallholder farm families through sustainably intensified farming systems that sufficiently improve food, nutrition and income security, particularly for women and children, and conserve or enhance the natural resource base.”2

The numbers that elicited the Africa Rising narratives were so inspiring that they were greeted by seismic applause by many, including African leaders, citizens, scholars, academics, and policymakers. For example, at the “Africa Arise Summit” which was held on August 20, 2011, at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki stated, “the economic growth and development which Africa has experienced since the 1990s was not accidental. It was the outcome of purposeful actions by the governments and peoples of Africa to change their condition in a positive direction, relating to the issues of governance and peace we have addressed, as well as the important matters of economic policy and practice.”3 To arrive at that determination, President Thabo Mbeki relied heavily on good numbers presented by McKinsey Global Institute in a report that is entitled “Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of the African Economies.”

To further affirm the Africa Rising narratives, Thabo Mbeki noted “the positive assessment about Africa’s economic prospects had also been made in a 2008 World Bank paper written by Jorge Arbache, Delfin S. Go and John Page interestingly entitled ‘Is Africa’s Economy at a Turning Point?.’” Buoyed by the good numbers, Mbeki surmised that “our broad conclusion must, therefore, be that Africa and its leadership have therefore done a great deal to turn the African economy round, at least to the extent that what has been done has broken a long period of economic stagnation which had lasted as long as 45 years.”4

Since 2015, to the discomfort of many African leaders, the World Bank and IMF have been producing numbers, which are demonstrating that some of the numbers at the soul of Africa Rising narratives have either been showing signs of concern or headed in the wrong direction. Forthwith, to exemplify this and other issues discussed below, I will be drawing on Nigeria. One such awkward reaction is the following statement made by President Mohammed Buhari via his official Twitter handle on October 9, 2019: “today, most of the statistics quoted about Nigeria are developed abroad by the World Bank, IMF and other foreign bodies. Some of these statistics are wild estimates that bear little relation to the facts on the ground.”

There seems to be a long list of “wild estimates,” numbers in the wrong direction, which irked President Buhari. This includes the poverty data indicating that 91 million Nigerians are extremely poor, thereby qualifying Nigeria as the World Poverty Capital. There is also the 2018 Human Capital Index, which ranked Nigeria 157 out of 158 countries. Hanke’s Annual Misery Index 2018 also placed Nigeria as the world’s sixth most miserable country. Globally, Nigeria is also ranked number 2 in the practice of open defecation and as the country with the highest number of out-of-school children. On food security, a 2018 report by the Global Food Security Index ranked Nigeria 96 out of 113 countries. The ranking of Nigeria is not any different from the 2019 Global Hunger Index, as the country was ranked 93 out of the 117 countries, which were surveyed.

Buhari who ruthlessly faulted World Bank and IMF bad numbers failed to explain what’s wrong with the numbers that he condemned. Like many others who supported his outburst, Buhari seems to display a poor understanding of the sources of the data that he disputed. Contrary to Buhari’s claim and in a statement which seems to expose Buhari’s ignorance of how the data he dismissed was collected, while speaking with the Premium Times on October 9, 2019, Dr. Yemi Kale, the Director-General of the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (NBS) stated that a “Majority of data published in Nigeria comes from the NBS. Foreign bodies do not collect data in Nigeria.” Dr. Kale added, “The World Bank partners with us a lot and they give us financial support. We are currently collecting data on poverty in partnership with the World Bank and another project on corruption in partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).” Dr. Kale noted, “However, foreign bodies do data modeling due to unavailability of the data they wanted. They do estimates in their countries sometimes when the data they needed does not exist. They only create models when they cannot access the data they need anywhere else.”5

Curiously, on October 24, 2019, at exactly 12:25 PM, Buhari was quick to flaunt and amplify a good number supplied by a foreign entity on Nigeria’s rating on Ease of Doing Business: “Nigeria’s 15-place rise on the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Index is welcome news. We‘re now ranked 131st, from 146th last year; & up 39 places since 2016, when we established the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC). Our goal is a Top 70 position by 2023.” Everyone loves good numbers, but politicians and policymakers seem to love them the most, as good numbers to them avail bragging rights to showcase to the public that their policies and programs are producing positive results.

However, it is awkward when political leaders and policymakers only want to accept good numbers, discarding or blacklisting numbers which are pointing in the wrong direction as wild, weird, and unreliable, without any evidential support. Hostility to bad numbers may mean that political leaders and policymakers want to censure numbers; it may mean that they care less about what’s wrong and that what only matters to them, are numbers, which based on their assumptions, estimations, and available facts are pointing in the positive direction. This may lead to a tragedy, which Morten Jerven, the author of Poor Numbers calls “policy-driven evidence rather than evidence-based policy,” in effect, posing the biggest and ever known challenge to development, governance, and policymaking. Drawing on the examples cited below, this seems to be happening in Nigeria.

In August 2019, in an apparent reference to the success of his policies and programs in the agricultural sector, Buhari claimed that Nigeria has attained food security. Dr. Maimuna Habib, Director of the Projects Coordinating Unit (PCU) Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, also echoed the same statement in an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) on October 17, 2019. Accordingly, she claimed that “we have attained food sufficiency; all we need to do is to blow our trumpet because no foreigner will tell anybody what is happening in the country. Looking at all that is happening in the agricultural sector, we have gone into value addition of all our commodities from the North to the South, all over the country we have added value to all our products.” Some days earlier, specifically on October 11, 2019, Mr. Mohammed Nanono, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development said that “I think we are producing enough to feed ourselves. I think there is no hunger in Nigeria; there could be inconveniences. When people talk about hunger in this country, I just laugh because they don’t know hunger.”

None of the statements by President Buhari, Dr. Maimuna, and Mr. Mohammed on food security, food sufficiency and hunger in Nigeria was backed up by any evidence, other than the assumptions that Buhari’s agriculture initiatives are producing desired results. This is virulent to progress, governance, and development in the country as existing numbers cited earlier, suggest otherwise. Bad numbers about hunger, poverty, food security and food sufficiency in any country are not innately bad news. They are a signal, communicating the need to reexamine and retool what is going on well, fairly and badly in the programs and policies of the government intended to help enhance the livelihood and livability conditions of the people. Not working with what is perceived as bad numbers because of the assumptions that they are not reflecting the reality on the ground may mean Nigeria, or SSA leadership generally, may lose the opportunity to develop evidence-based policies and programs — a necessity for development. This is because the data on doing development usually consist of good and bad numbers, both of which are a necessity for good policy formulation and program development. Hostility towards bad numbers because they are from foreign bodies will only lead to poorly formulated policies, not otherwise.

Finally, if Nigeria and other Africa countries will not trust what is considered wild and weird numbers from foreign bodies, it is time that they invested massively in the local institutional capacity to produce high-quality data. Part of that will require a massive investment in repositioning programs such as statistics in the higher institutions of learning in Africa. It is equally important that government ministries, especially statistical offices in Africa should be well-financed and populated with highly educated and well-paid statisticians and data science experts. Embedding statistical offices in Africa in accountability enabling institutional and governance structures can not be underemphasized. Part of that requires insulating statistical offices in Africa against politicization, blackmail, manipulation, and corruption, including by their external partners.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Leaders of Africa.

  1. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). (2018). Economic Development in Africa Report 2018: Migration for Structural Transformation. United Nations.
  2. https://africa-rising.net/
  3. Mr. Thabo Mbeki. The Effects of Leadership Bankruptcy in Africa. Speech delivered at the “Africa Arise Summit” University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa,  August 20, 2011. https://www.unisa.ac.za/static/corporate_web/Content/tmali/speeches/2011/africa-arise-summit_mbeki_20Aug2011.pdf
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ogundipe Samule. (October 9, 2019). World Bank, IMF, Others ‘Publishing Inaccurate Data about Nigeria’ — Buhari. Premium Times.
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