Africa Without Numbers: Mission Impossible

The story of Africa is mainly told through numbers we do not own. These numbers represent each child born, each teenager entering the workforce, each adult marrying and starting a family, and each death from a disease that has been eradicated in richer countries.

These numbers currently belong not to our national statistical offices, but, in part, to our donors. They are often used to justify aid funding. If this continent is to reach its full potential, we must take ownership of these numbers so that we can plan for our own people.

The paucity of data collected has given rise to a host of parallel systems put in place to satisfy donor requirements. It also limits our potential. Because we don’t accurately count births, for example, we fail to provide education for our youth, adding to urban unemployment as young people with limited skills flood cities.

There is power in the numbers. Those who control them can push a narrative that serves a purpose. We have yet to see the full benefits of this purpose for African citizens. Too many specific issues get vertical lines of funding. As a result, opportunities to address socio-economic transformation holistically are limited. At times, this system has helped to focus attention on a particular issue, drawing much-needed investment. But this system no longer suits us. It does not give us access to the real-time data that we need to make African structural transformation the next generation’s inheritance.

I have witnessed the power of owning an African narrative through data. As a Mo Ibrahim Fellow at the Economic Commission for Africa in 2014, I saw firsthand the impact of challenging faulty data. The commission argued successfully that the continent-wide economic impact from the Ebola outbreak was being exaggerated. The fear of not acting in time probably drove the inflation of numbers to raise awareness. The reality is that big numbers called do not always translate into cash where it is most needed. As such, headlines may deceive both community organizations and international organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontières. It is also possible that the inability to save more lives and arrest economic decline—the desired result—incentivizes pushing the narrative of the cost of doing nothing.

The World Bank later downgraded its estimate of the economic damage of the Ebola epidemic. While raising awareness using assumptions and models may get the donor funding machine in motion, the time has come to use every opportunity to assess, improve, and develop data collection, analysis, and reporting in African countries. Without a proper diagnosis, there is no proper recovery.

A child born in Nzérékoré, Guinea, the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, will hear tales of the disease that rewrote the hopes and aspirations of communities across the West African region. But most importantly, that child needs to be registered through Guinea’s Civil Registration and Vital Statistics system. He or she needs to be counted at birth in order to receive services at each stage of life, helping him or her to become a productive contributor to Africa’s economic transformation.

Some organizations have gotten it right. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria invested heavily in data collection and performance management. Systematic data, which was collected by implementing entities and verified by an independent third party over time, has supported the fund’s investment case. In September 2016, when the organization went to the development “market,” it received pledges of $12.9 billion out of the $13 billion it was seeking. The combination of data use and funds for 448 grants in 100 countries it invested in made a difference in the fight against the three diseases it focuses on.

But evidence suggests that gains will be eroded for many because of systemic and contextual issues.  Too many children in Africa don’t live beyond five years, and even when they do, governments cannot meet basic needs, such as health care and education, because births were not recorded. We cripple our children’s potential because of our inability to track the numbers.

We can see the impact of poor data collection in Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda, where a recalculation of gross domestic product demonstrated that these economies underestimated these numbers for far too long. The consequences of these inaccurate measures are still being felt. Ghana’s Statistical Services data released in 2010, for instance, showed GDP was in fact 60 percent higher than previously reported. Economic activity of about $13 billion, almost equivalent to Guinea’s GDP, had not been accounted for. The recalculation elevated the country to lower-middle income status, though some of the challenges facing developing countries remained. The lack of real-time data made it more difficult for the country to estimate the amount of tax it should have been collecting. Better data is key for planning to meet a country’s needs based on its internal resources.

Ultimately, closing the knowledge gap will allow us to plan and act in a timely manner, connecting citizens to beneficial opportunities. Agriculture is a good starting point. With 60 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP in services, while 80 percent of the population’s livelihood relies on agriculture, there is an imbalance to be redressed. Agricultural data is multisectoral; there is an interconnection between food security, poverty, gender issues, and rural development. Thus, transforming agriculture holds the key to industrialization and job creation on the continent, a sure way to lift a generation.

Africa did not meet the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. In 15 years, Africa is unlikely to meet the targets of the U.N.’s next development agenda—the Sustainable Development Goals. One of the key lessons from the past 15 years has been the need for reliable national systems to capture, monitor, and evaluate data to give governments the opportunity to adjust policies accordingly. The African Development Bank said that improved data collection is essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

By 2035, we estimate that 100 million more Africans will join the labor force. If we are to prepare them for the opportunities ahead, we need to collect data as comprehensively as mobile network operators do. We need to analyze data the way the supercomputer Watson does. For too long, Africa delinked statistics from its transformation process. We have no alternative but to insist that every child born on the African continent is accounted for.



Carl Manlan is the COO of the Ecobank Foundation. He is a 2016 Aspen New Voices Fellow and writes in his personal capacity.

[Photo Courtesy of DFID]

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