Comparability of GDP estimates in Sub-Saharan Africa: The effect of Revisions in Sources and Methods Since Structural Adjustment


  • Note: The research for this paper has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Thanks are extended to Liv Hobbelstad Simpson for organizing the session for Improving National Accounts in Africa at the IARIW conference in Cape Town, South Africa, 2011, and to IARIW for a contribution toward travel costs to attend the conference. I would like to thank those who were willing to share their information during my visits to the statistical offices in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia in the period from 2007 to 2010. Much of the information in the paper was gathered in correspondence with statisticians at statistical offices in Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Guinea, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Mozambique, Niger, Senegal, Seychelles, and South Africa. The paper could not have been written without this collaboration. I have also been invited to present this paper at the Center of Global Development, Washington DC, African Studies Center, School of Oriental and African Studies, Department of Economics, University of Oklahoma, and at the World Economic History Congress in Stellenbosch. I thank participants for comments, and particularly Alan Gelb, Deborah Johnston, Kevin Grier, Robin Grier, and Martin Uebele for inviting me to present my work on those occasions. I am grateful to Derek Blades and referees for reading the manuscript and providing useful comments and recommendations. Finally, I would like to thank Madeleine Hawkins and Awa Kana at Simon Fraser University for excellent research assistance.

Correspondence to: Morten Jerven, School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Suite 7200-515, West Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC V6B 5K3, Canada (


The unreliability of African income estimates was highlighted when Ghana announced that GDP estimates were revised upwards by 60.3 percent in November 2010. Similar revisions are to be expected in other countries. Many statistical offices are currently using outdated base years. It is argued that with the current uneven application of methods and poor availability of data, any ranking of countries according to GDP levels is misleading. The paper emphasizes the challenges for “data users” in light of these revisions. GDP data are disseminated through international organizations, but without any detailed data descriptions. It is argued that many statistical offices in Sub-Saharan Africa struggled to recover from the structural adjustment period, and the offices have not had the capacity to handle other challenges such as providing data to monitor the Millennium Development Goals. Currently, neither data users nor data producers are getting the assistance they need.