On African Statistics Day, What are the Real Obstacles to Statistical Development in Africa?

October 24, 2013

By Alex Ezeh, Executive Director of APHRC and Amanda Glassman, Director of Global Health Policy at the Center for Global Development

November 19, 2012

Maybe you missed it–but this past Sunday, November 18, was African Statistics Day.

It’s the 12th celebration of the day, and a good time to note that substantial gaps remain in the availability and quality of data on basic indicators of human well-being such as income, poverty and cause of death in Africa.

In spite of a decade of historic levels of international and national spending on health, a 2009 study found that only 3, out of 46 countries in the WHO/AFRO region, had population-level data on cause of death. Even seemingly comprehensive and definitive statistical compilations, such as the recently released Atlas of African Health Statistics, readily concede that their data is entirely reliant on weak country-level data collection and variable tabulation. Similarly, the development of national administrative information systems, in health as well as other sectors, has been intermittent and slow to improve despite national and international efforts over the years (the challenges of planning based on estimates generated from limited data were pointed out by CGD research fellow Victoria Fan in a blog earlier this year).

While the results of weak national statistical systems are well-known and the subject of many aspirational declarations, we’re interested in African Statistics Day because we –CGD and APHRC–are joining forces on a working group (see description below) to analyze the political economy challenges that underpin many countries’ notoriously low statistical coverage, quality and frequency.


The Data for African Development Working Group, poses for a group photo outside of the APHRC campus in Nairobi, Kenya.

Statistical system weaknesses stem, in part, from limitations in capacity, technical know-how and qualified human resources.  Limited financial resources also have something to do with weak systems, but the explosion of data collection efforts in the region suggests this is not the main obstacle (see: Case Study Kenya). Our working group has identified a third, relatively unaddressed, obstacle to statistics development: misaligned political and institutional incentives within governments and created by donor assistance policies and practices (for example, here and here).

Examples of misaligned incentives abound.  National statistics offices may collect and analyze data for a consumer price index, for example, but be barred from reporting accurate results for political reasons. Budget formulas or results-based funding systems can unintentionally create incentives to “beef up” numbers, as in systems where schools are paid per pupil enrolled and administrative information systems grossly over-report the number of students. Even when data has been collected by national statistics offices, many times with donor money, data sets are inaccessible to policymakers, researchers and civil society.

Working Group member Gabriel Demombynes notes in a recent blog that in spite of technical and financial support from DfID, USAID, EU, DANIDA, the World Bank, and UNDP for the Integrated Household Budget Survey in Kenya, only a small group of researchers have access to the raw data. Further down the line but equally important are challenges related to ensuring that the data is useful for policy and decision makers as well as civil society.

This African Statistics Day—although we don’t think we are ready to celebrate yet—we would like to acknowledge past efforts to improve data collection, emphasize the connection between quality data and progressive African development—and finally urge donors and international institutions to continue to  focus on improving data quality and access. We need to better understand the political economy challenges of data issues in Africa in order to develop more practical strategies to strengthen national statistical systems.

The APHRC-CGD Working Group aims to better understand the relationship between the institutional arrangements governing national statistics systems and how they affect rigorous, efficient and timely production of relevant data for decision-making. The extent of national statistics offices’ autonomy and accountability is a major area for investigation (related issues are discussed in a recent blog by Francis Fukuyama). The second challenge the new group hopes to tackle is how to address the problem of limited accessibility to and use of data that is already being produced. Innovative open data systems (for example the Kenya Open Data Portal) provide a good starting point for this research.

More information on the Data for African Development Working Group:

The quality, availability, timeliness and use of basic economic and demographic data to inform policy remain significant challenges across Africa. These challenges stem in part from limitations in technical know-how and qualified human resources, but also from the barriers created by misaligned political and institutional incentives within governments and persistent difficulties in aid coordination from donors. As a result there is a huge need for better examination of the political economy challenges faced by donors and countries.

While there are many international groups and initiatives working to improve methodologies for measurement and coordination and to build country statistical capacity, there are few working to assess and seek solutions to the underlying political economy drivers of poor quality data for policymaking. Understanding the reasons for this gap in available data and whether there are perverse incentives operating that are preventing the information from being collected and used is one way this group could decrease potential barriers and improve data for development in Africa.

The African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), based in Nairobi, Kenya and the Center for Global Development, based in Washington, D.C., have teamed up to address these major data challenges through a new working group-the Data for African Development Working Group-which is working to identify the underlying political economy issues related to the collection, analysis and use of data for policy-making.

The APHRC-CGD Data for African Development Working Group is currently examining two aspects of these major data challenges. Firstly, the group will examine the relationship between the institutional arrangements governing national statistics systems as they relate to efficient and timely production of data. Secondly, the Working Group will explore issues of data access and provide recommendations for countries, international organizations, and donors that illustrate how new initiatives like Open Data and others can help provide a platform for countries and international organizations to better publish and utilize data.

The Working Group is made up of 24 members with diverse backgrounds in statistics and development fields in Africa. Members include leaders from country statistical offices from across the continent; several regional groups including individuals from COMESA, INDEPTH, IHME; and international organizations such as the African Development Bank (AfDB), the African Union (AU), United National Economic Commission for African (UNECA), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Bank. The group had its first meeting September 17-18 in Nairobi, Kenya.