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Africa: Towards Reality-Based Talk

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Feb 5 2013 (130205)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Almost a decade ago, Republican strategist Karl Rove disparaged what he termed the "reality-based community" of his critics, claiming he and his friends had the power to create their own reality. The slogan has become a catch phrase justifiably used to illustrate the distance of Rove's party from reality. Yet, on African issues, commentators of all political persuasions, Africans as well as non-Africans, not infrequently fall back on dubious generalizations about the entire diverse continent.

Thus, commentaries on "Africa Rising" are now proliferating across the international media, at the same time as images of violence and poverty continue to vie for attention depending on the news cycle. Events displaced from each other by thousands of miles are taken to characterize a continent, or, more modestly, a giant and internally diverse region such as "West Africa." Critics of African states or of U.S. policy on the continent speak sweepingly of "militarization of Africa," without bothering to specify the time period or the representativeness of the national situations they have in mind, apart from the latest to hit the headlines.

For me such a term brings to mind one of my favorite jazz classics "Compared to What?" by Les McCann ( Is today's reality more or less militarized or more or less violent than, for example, the decades of war in Angola, the total wars of apartheid South Africa against its neighbors, the multiple wars in Sudan over decades, the genocide in Rwanda, or the height of the multinational war in the Congo? Is Somalia more or less violent now than five years ago? Or can any quantitative comparisons do justice to the complex realities at different levels even within the same country at all?

The recent articles contained in this AfricaFocus Bulletin take on this issue of "reality-based" judgments directly. They don't have "answers" but they raise serious questions about how solid are the answers many of us may think we have.

(1) Economist Morten Jerven questions whether the statistics used by governments and international agencies on African development are so bad that any conclusions based on them should be questioned (of course, we have to use some statistics anyway - the question is just how much confidence to put in them).

(2) Political scientist Scott Straus challenges the conventional view that violence in Africa is increasing, without denying that horrific violence in many places is indeed real. The question is one of perspective and of taking into account the concrete realities of different places at different times.

And (3) in an article from the stereotype-puncturing blog Africa is a Country (, a comment on Al Jazeera joining the celebration of Africa's super-rich.

For two additional commentaries on the "Africa Rising" stereotype, both nuanced and fact-based but with decidedly different takes on the evidence, see Rick Rowden, "The Myth of Africa's Rise" ( and "Africa's Rise a Myth? Bring on Authoritarian Capitalism Instead" by Adam Robert Green (

The great liberation leader and thinker Amilcar Cabral, assassinated a little more than 40 years ago on January 20, 1973, stressed the need for analyzing specific realities to guide political action. The same formulas could not be applied, he explained, to the two territories for the independence of which his movement was fighting (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) or even to different geographical and cultural regions within Guinea-Bissau.

All of us trying to analyze today's Africa and "tell no lies" need to take heed, try to follow Cabral's example, and be modest about any sweeping conclusions we may reach on the basis of the necessarily limited facts available to any of us.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled By African Development Statistics And What To Do About It, By Morten Jerven

November 20, 2012 / direct URL:

[Morten Jerven is Assistant Professor at the Simon Fraser University, School for International Studies. His book Poor Numbers: how we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it is published by Cornell University Press.]

On November 5, 2010, Ghana Statistical Services announced that it was revising its GDP estimates upwards by over 60 percent, suggesting that that in the previous GDP estimates about US$13 billion worth's of economic activity had been missed. As a result, Ghana was suddenly upgraded from a low to lower-middle-income country. In response to this change, Todd Moss, the development scholar and blogger at the Center of Global Development in Washington DC exclaimed: 'Boy, we really don't know anything!'

Shanta Devarajan - The World Bank's Chief Economist for Africa - struck a more dramatic tone. In an address to a conference organized by Statistics South Africa, he called the current state of affairs 'Africa's statistical tragedy'.

How good are these numbers?

My book – Poor Numbers: how we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about it – presents a study of the production and use of African economic development statistics. All of the central questions in development revolve around the measure of the production and consumption of goods and services. This is expressed in an aggregate composite metric called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is used to rank and rate the wealth and progress of nations. It is the most widely used measure of economic activity, yet little is known about how this metric is produced and misused in debates about African economic development.

For a number of years now I have been trying to answer the question: How good are these numbers? The short answer is that the numbers are poor. This is just not a matter of technical accuracy - the arbitrariness of the quantification process produces observations with very large errors and levels of uncertainty. This 'numbers game' has taken on a dangerously misleading air of accuracy, and the resulting figures are used to make critical decisions that allocate scarce resources. International development actors are making judgments based on erroneous statistics. Governments are not able to make informed decisions because existing data are too weak or the data they need do not exist.

What happened in Ghana?

How could the country be among the poorest in the world one day, and find itself amongst aspiring middle income countries the next?

To grasp this chain of events, a basic understanding of national accounting is necessary. GDP is typically calculated as a sum of the 'value added' of the production of goods and services in all sectors of the economy. In order to compare one year's value added with another, and thus get an idea of whether the economy is expanding or contracting, a new set of sums for all the sectors are computed. In order for these two amounts to be comparable, they are expressed in constant prices. The easiest way of doing this, particularly if data are sparse, which they are at most African statistical offices, is to generate 'base year' estimate for future level estimates.

When picking a 'base year' the statistical office chooses a year when it has more information on the economy than normally available; such as data from a household, agricultural or industrial survey. The information from these survey instruments is added to the normally available administrative data to form a new GDP estimate. This new total is then weighted by sectors, thereafter other indicators and proxies are used to calculate new annual estimates.

The importance of 'base year'

The 'base year' is very important in three respects. Firstly, the GDP estimates will be expressed in constant prices for the base year. Second, the index number applies, so that a sector that was very economically important in the base year will continue to appear very important despite structural changes that may have occurred since the last base year.

Conversely, sectors that were unimportant or not even existing will barely have an impact on the official GDP statistics. Finally, the data sources and the use of proxies are set in the base year. Even when new information is becoming available, national accountants may be unwilling or unable to add this data to the GDP series. Thus, when the base year is out of date, the GDP series is becoming an increasingly reliable guide to interpreting real economic change. The IMF statistical division recommends a change of base year every fifth year.

In the case of Ghana, their previous base year was made in 1993. Quite obviously, the structure of the economy has changed radically since then, partly due to the introduction of new technologies, such as the mobile phone and partly due to economic policy, such as the continued liberalisation and importance of non-state delivery of services such as in tertiary education. Through some sample surveys and availability of administrative data, such as those derived from Value Added Taxation, the statistical office was increasingly aware that their estimates were underestimating the size of the Ghanaian economy. Ghana Statistical Services therefore requested the services of the IMF as early as in 2002, which contracted a consultant to undertake the rebasing and revision of GDP estimates in the country.

What about the comparisons with other countries? How should we compare the income and growth of Ghana with Nigeria, Kenya or other economies in the region? The lack of comparability of data and methods in national accounting practices in Sub-Saharan Africa is disturbing. According to my own survey, only ten of these countries have a base year that is less than a decade old, when I compared the statistics available from the World Bank and those published by the national statistical agencies that actually compile the GDP statistics, there was an alarming level of discrepancy. A comparison of the data published in other sources further added support to the conclusion that with the current uneven application of methods and poor availability of data, any ranking of countries according to GDP levels is misleading.

Nigerian revision pending

Meanwhile, in Nigeria an upward revision is pending. Their base year for the national accounts, 1990, is even more outdated than that of Ghana. According to reports from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Nigeria plans to change the base year for its gross domestic product (GDP) to 2008. It has been boldly announced that this could lead to a 'huge jump&' in GDP figures.

This radically challenges our current understanding of economic development in Nigeria and in Africa. According to the World Development Indicators' most recent data, the total GDP in current $US in 2010 was above 200 billion. Nigerian GDP, before the predicted revision, already accounts for 18 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa's total (about 1,200 billion $US). The reports in the media, from the IMF and the NBS all indicate that Nigerian GDP will increase at least as much as in the recent case in Ghana.

Let us be conservative and assume that the GDP in Nigeria merely doubles following the revision. It will alone mean that the GDP for the whole region increased more than 15 percent. The value of the increase accrues to nothing less than 40 economies roughly the size of Malawi's. The knowledge that currently there are 40 'Malawis' unaccounted for in the Nigerian economy should raise a few eyebrows.

It is a real tragedy that the statistical capacities of Sub-Saharan African economies are in such a poor state. African development statistics tell us less than we would like to think about income, poverty and growth in SubSaharan Africa. One of the most urgent challenges in African economic development is to devise a strategy for improving statistical capacity. This system currently causes more confusion than enlightenment. However, governments, international organizations and independent analysts do need these development statistics to track and monitor efforts at improving living conditions on the African continent.

Poor numbers are too important to be dismissed as just that.

Africa: Wars Do End - Why Conflict in Africa Is Falling

by Scott Straus, 28 January 2013 /

Scott Straus is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin.

Recent events in Mali, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan seem to confirm one of the most durable stereotypes of Africa, namely that the continent is unstable and uniquely prone to nasty political violence.

Writing in Foreign Policy two years ago, New York Times East Africa correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Gettleman espoused this view. He painted a dismal picture of pointless wars waged by brutes and criminals "spreading across Africa like a viral pandemic."

Gettleman is right that warfare and political violence are changing on the continent, but he is wrong to portray that change as one of brutal violence increasing out of control.

In fact, as I show in a recent piece in African Affairs, looked at since the end of the Cold War, wars are not becoming more frequent in Sub-Saharan Africa.

To the contrary: according to the Uppsala Armed Conflict Data Program, the preeminent tracker of warfare worldwide, wars in the 2000s are substantially down from their peak in the early 1990s. Even if one counts an uptick during the past two years, there were about onethird fewer wars in Sub-Saharan Africa in the period compared to the early-to-mid 1990s.

Another prevailing view is that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most war-endemic region. Not so, especially if one looks at the continent's history since 1960. Wars in SubSaharan Africa (compared to other world regions) are not longer or more frequent on a wars-per-country basis. Those distinctions effectively go to Asia, where between wars in India, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, among others, wars are more frequent and longer lasting.

The pattern holds true for extreme cases of mass killing, like Rwanda in 1994 and Darfur in the mid-2000s. Such events are on the decline in Africa; viewed across time, Africa is also not the regional leader of such events on a per-country basis.

My point is not to engage in crude regionalism, but rather to suggest that what often transpires as common sense about Sub-Saharan Africa is wrong.

The bigger point is that we may be witnessing significant shifts in the nature of political violence on the continent. Wars are on the decline since the 1990s, but the character of warfare is also changing. There are today fewer big wars fought for state control in which insurgents maintain substantial control of territory and put up well-structured armies to fight their counterparts in the state - Mali not withstanding.

Such wars were modal into the 1990s. From southern Africa in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, and even Zimbabwe to the long wars in the Horn in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan to the Great Lakes wars in Rwanda and Uganda, the typical armed conflict in Africa involved two major, territoryholding armies fighting each other for state control.

Today's wars typically are smaller. They most often involve small insurgencies of factionalized rebels on the peripheries of states. Today's wars also play out differently. They exhibit cross-border dimensions, and rather than drawing funding from big external states they depend on illicit trade, banditry, and international terrorist networks.

Typical of today's wars are the rebels in Casamance, in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, various armed groups in Darfur, and the Lord's Resistance Army. The latter typifies an emerging trend of trans-national insurgents. The LRA moves across multiple states in the Great Lakes region.

Northern Mali is another case in point - prior to seizing control of the north, the Islamists moved across multiple countries in the Sahel. Once they gained territorial control in 2012, they attracted fighters from Nigeria and across North Africa. Moreover, these are not nonideological wars, as Gettleman claims. The jihadis in Mali and Somalia, the separatists in Casamance, and the rebels in Darfur are certainly fighting for a cause.

To be sure, no one in his or her right mind could claim that warfare or political violence has ended in Africa. Many countries in the region have features that political scientists believe make countries vulnerable to armed conflict: weak states, high dependence on natural resources, and horizontal inequalities.

Of the recent armed conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, Chad, and eastern Congo, one obvious commonality is the lack of effective state control. Rebels survive in remote regions where state authority is tenuous. The fact of weak states in these and other countries will not end any time soon.

Moreover, other forms of violence deserve greater scrutiny. Consider, for example, electoral violence. As African states have turned to multiparty elections, so too has the risk of violence during those electoral campaigns increased.

Electoral violence on the scale of Kenya in 2007 and 2008, Côte d'Ivoire in 2010, or Zimbabwe in 2008 is not the norm, but in many locations there is often some form of violence between incumbent and opposition forces. Yet we know substantially less about patterns and causes of electoral violence.

Consider too violence over vital resources, such as land, water, and pasture. Trends are harder to detect, but one new data collection effort from the University of Texas shows an increase in such violence events since the early 1990s. With climate change, rapidly growing urbanization, and other changes that increase the pressure on vital but often scarce resources, we can expect more violence of the type recently seen in northern Kenya. Yet again, we know much less about this form of violence.

What explains the recent decline in warfare across Africa? I don't know for certain, but would point to geopolitical changes since the end of the Cold War.

First, the end of the Cold War meant that the opportunities for rebels to receive substantial weaponry and training from big external states declined. To be sure, states across Africa still meddle in the affairs of their neighbors, but insurgent funding from neighbouring states is usually enough to be a nuisance to, but not actually overthrow, existing governments.

Second, the rise of multi-party politics has sapped the anti-government funding, energy, and talent away from the bush and into the domestic political arena.

Third, China is a rising external force in Sub-Saharan Africa. China's goals are mainly economic, but their foreign relations follow a principle of non-interference. To my knowledge, China supports states, not insurgencies.

Finally, conflict reduction mechanisms, in particular international peacekeeping and regional diplomacy, have substantially increased on the continent.

Peacekeeping is more prevalent and especially more robust than in the 1990s. Regional bodies such as the AU, ECOWAS, ECCAS, IGAD, and SADC are quite active in most conflict situations. They have exhibited greater resolves in conflicts as diverse as Côte d'Ivoire, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Madagascar.

The four posited mechanisms are hypotheses, each of which deserves greater scrutiny and empirical testing. But taken together, they suggest plausible ways in which the incentives of insurgents and even state leaders to fight have been altered in recent years.

They give reason to expect that while war is clearly not over in Sub-Saharan Africa, we should continue to observe a decline in its frequency and intensity in coming decades.

Al Jazeera Joins The 'Africa Rising' Bandwagon"

Steffan Horwitz

Africa is a Country

January 22, 2013 / direct URL:

We recently ( posted a bit on Forbes Magazine's list of the 40 richest Africans. In a similar vain, Al Jazeera has chosen to glorify Africa's privileged few and feed into Western media outlets' current obsession with the 'Africa Rising' narrative by releasing their four-part series Tutu's Children ( With the first two episodes up on the website, I'm still not entirely sure what the point of it all is supposed to be.

The series follows twenty-five successful business people (and a Kenyan TV presenter thrown in for good measure) from across the continent who have been chosen as 'Tutu Fellows' by the South African non-profit organization, African Leadership Institute ( (whose founders, Sean Lance and Peter Wilson, are themselves retired white South African oil and pharmaceutical executives). All twenty-five individuals are flown down to South Africa, where they participate in group activities and workshops, as well attend lectures from icons and experts alike (including Desmond Tutu, himself). The producers of the series would like us to believe that these twenty-five corporate darlings are 'Africa's leaders of tomorrow.' Yet, the whole thing plays out like a cross between a poorly conceived and edited reality television show (not as bad ( as this, but close) and an extravagant corporate retreat. The take away of the series would appear to be that business entrepreneurship and corporate capitalism will be Africa's saving grace.

Interestingly, the backdrop for the first two episodes is the ultra-luxurious ( Mont Fleur Conference Centre outside of Cape Town. I suppose this was intended to be symbolic, but without providing any context, all symbolic significance is lost on the average non-South African viewer. Mont Fleur was in fact the venue for a series of forums that brought together a number of South African political, business, and civil society leaders between 1991 and 1992 in what has become known as the 'Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise.' The goal of the exercise was to develop a series of potential scenarios describing what might happen in South Africa over the following ten years. In the end, the exercise produced four main scenarios, which were lightheartedly labeled Ostrich, Lame Duck, Icarus, and Flight of the Flamingos. (For more on the Mont Fleur Scenarios, see and Broadly, Mont Fleur underscored a capitalist, neo-liberal growth path for South Africa. And we know where that got us.

Ironically, both Tutu's Children and the Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise seem to be endeavors of little consequence - ambiguous events that are more publicity stunt than substantive problem solving and action.

But let's get back to Tutu's Children. In just the first two episodes, the fellows have already debated the roots of corruption, gender bias, the Arab Spring, being white in South Africa (as usual this is handled very clumsily), and whether or not African nations are ready for democracy. The thoughts expressed by the fellows on these subjects are an exercise in fuzzy and rather outdated liberal attitudes. Perhaps the most revealing discussion of all is the one on democracy and, to a lesser extent, the discussion on popular uprisings (particularly those of the Arab Spring in North Africa). The entire group, with the exception of a Tunisian participant who had been involved in the Arab Spring, quickly comes to the consensus that Africans are not yet ready for democracy; implying at times that the so-called 'masses' are not intelligent enough, or too easily bought for democracy to work. They instead consider a 'benevolent' dictatorship, like that of Paul Kagame in Rwanda, to be a better alternative. The Zimbabwean sounds like he was making excuses for Mugabe, and so on. This rather patronizing view of less-privileged Africans extends into the fellows' discussion of the popular uprisings in North Africa. First of all, instead of seeing these popular uprisings as still ongoing, many of the participants interpret them as being finished. This view then allows them to deem these revolutions as failures in many regards and place the blame on those involved in these uprisings by arguing that they did not think ahead enough.

How deeply unsettling it is to see that these folks, who are supposed to be the new generation of African leaders, have such little faith in the people they will ostensibly be leading.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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