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Africa's Statistical Tragedy


  • Note: This paper is a revised version of my keynote speech at the 2010 IARIW–SSA conference on “Measuring National Income, Wealth, Poverty and Inequality in African Countries.” I am grateful to Derek Blades, Stephan Klasen, Rose Mungai, and Antoine Simonpietri for valuable comments. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Bank.

Correspondence to: Shantayanan Devarajan, Chief Economist, Africa Region, World Bank, Washington DC, USA (


While Africa may have overcome its growth tragedy, it is facing a statistical tragedy, in that the statistical foundations of the recent growth in per-capita GDP and reduction in poverty are quite weak. In many countries, GDP accounts use old methods, population censuses are out of date, and poverty estimates are infrequent and often not comparable over time. The proximate reasons have to do with weak capacity, inadequate funding, and a lack of coordination of statistical activities. But the underlying cause may be the political sensitivity of these statistics, and some donors' tendency to go around countries' own National Statistical Development Strategies (NSDS). Greater openness and transparency of statistics, and a higher profile for the NSDS, possibly with “naming and shaming” of those who try to circumvent it, may help Africans turn around their statistical tragedy.