In­ter­view: Pali Le­hohla, Statis­ti­cian-Gen­eral of Sta­tis­tics South Africa

Africa Renewal - - CONTENTS - — Pali Le­hohla

Pali Le­hohla, Statis­ti­cian-Gen­eral of Sta­tis­tics South Africa, was re­cently at UN head­quar­ters in New York at­tend­ing the an­nual con­fer­ence of the Com­mis­sion on the Sta­tus of Women. Africa Re­newal’s Masimba Tafirenyika caught up with him to talk about the chal­lenges of sta­tis­tics in Africa and the progress the con­ti­nent has made im­prov­ing the qual­ity of its sta­tis­tics.

Africa Re­newal: Some ex­perts say there is a ma­jor prob­lem with how sta­tis­tics are col­lected in Africa. What is the prob­lem?

Pali Le­hohla: There is a ma­jor chal­lenge on the con­ti­nent with sta­tis­tics. But in in­ter­pret­ing the prob­lem, there are two ma­jor trends. There is one based less on facts and more on hype. This one gets very pop­u­lar and is widely pub­li­cized. There is another that says yes, there might be dif­fi­cul­ties, but Africa is get­ting its act to­gether. There is very lit­tle of that be­ing said.

There are many publi­ca­tions like the one by Morten Jer­ven* on how Africa mis­leads the world with poor num­bers. But when you scratch the sur­face of these doc­u­ments, you find that lit­tle re­search has been done to jus­tify what these au­thors are say­ing. When you look at African sta­tis­tics across do­mes­tic prod­ucts, na­tional ac­counts and the in­ter­na­tional com­par­isons pro­grammes, Africa matches quite well with the rest of the world be­cause it couldn’t par­tic­i­pate in in­ter­na­tional sta­tis­tics pro­grammes if its data were that poor.

In­deed, there are de­fi­cien­cies. For in­stance, if Africa wants to un­der­stand the fu­ture of its pop­u­la­tion and how it can ben­e­fit from sta­tis­tics, we have to un­der­stand labour mar­kets and the re­sults of ed­u­ca­tion. But not many coun­tries run the em­ploy­ment sta­tis­tics an­nu­ally or quar­terly. In terms of cen­suses, Africa has got its act to­gether. Though the sit­u­a­tion varies, Africa is on an up­ward tra­jec­tory. Its nar­ra­tive on sta­tis­tics is pos­i­tive de­spite some prob­lems.

But still peo­ple ask: can we trust sta­tis­tics from Africa?

That’s a very in­ter­est­ing ques­tion. We are gov­erned by a num­ber of prin­ci­ples – the UN Fun­da­men­tal Prin­ci­ples for Of­fi­cial Sta­tis­tics. We now have an African Char­ter on Sta­tis­tics. We have a Strat­egy for the Har­mon­i­sa­tion of Sta­tis­tics in Africa. All these are of­fi­cial doc­u­ments that gov­ern our pro­duc­tion of sta­tis­tics. And then of course there are global part­ner­ships that en­sure that the qual­ity of our data is good. We now com­pare data and run peer re­views, in­clud­ing those con­ducted by the African De­vel­op­ment Bank. There is a lot ac­tiv­ity that looks at our data. Then of course we have the har­monised con­sumer price in­dexes. The French-speak­ing coun­tries are quite or­ga­nized on this. We have train­ing schools in Côte d’Ivoire. So it’s not a ques­tion of whether you can trust African statis­ti­cians but whether the train­ing they get gen­er­ates the kind of peo­ple that pro­duce qual­ity sta­tis­tics. And in­deed, we have train­ing in­sti­tu­tions that pro­duce sta­tis­tics equal

to those pro­duced else­where in the world. There may be is­sues of sources to cover the broad spec­trum of sta­tis­tics, but in as far as the qual­ity of sta­tis­tics that Africans pro­duce is con­cerned, it is as good as any you can find else­where.

There have been sug­ges­tions that rather than re­ly­ing on oc­ca­sional ef­forts, it would be bet­ter for na­tional sta­tis­ti­cal of­fices to make short and fre­quent sur­veys. We have de­clared 2015 to 2024 as the Decade of Civil Reg­is­tra­tion and Vi­tal Sta­tis­tics so that ev­ery birth and death can be reg­is­tered, in­clud­ing the causes of death. It’s a very pos­i­tive move to­wards har­vest­ing im­por­tant data on a con­tin­u­ous ba­sis in a slightly cheaper way.

What can other coun­tries learn from South Africa on col­lect­ing sta­tis­tics?

They can learn how South Africa learned from oth­ers. Post-apartheid South Africa was no bet­ter than any other coun­try in Africa in col­lect­ing sta­tis­tics, ex­cept in eco­nomic sta­tis­tics where we were quite so­phis­ti­cated, ser­vic­ing a mod­ern econ­omy and a mod­ern bank­ing sec­tor. But the other sta­tis­tics were in bad shape. The apartheid gov­ern­ment paid very lit­tle at­ten­tion to sta­tis­tics, ex­cept for the key in­di­ca­tors that they wanted, like con­sumer price in­dexes.

The UN body on sta­tis­tics is an as­set be­cause ev­ery­body who knows some­thing about sta­tis­tics is there to help you. The In­ter­na­tional Sta­tis­ti­cal In­sti­tute is also very im­por­tant. All these were es­sen­tial com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice that helped us move for­ward faster in sta­tis­tics. It’s im­por­tant to put re­sources into peo­ple and train them, and then of course to in­vest in univer­si­ties, as for ex­am­ple, the Cen­tre for Re­gional and Ur­ban In­no­va­tion and Sta­tis­ti­cal Ex­plo­ration (CRUISE) in Stel­len­bosch. Sta­tis­tics South Africa has cre­ated a chair at the Univer­sity of Stel­len­bosch to fo­cus on in­tel­lec­tual lead­er­ship of mak­ing sta­tis­ti­cal ge­og­ra­phy the driver of the so-called data revo­lu­tion.

What is the de­gree of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween African gov­ern­ments and UN agen­cies who pub­lish sta­tis­tics on African so­cial and eco­nomic is­sues?

We have done quite a lot in Africa just by iden­ti­fy­ing and ad­dress­ing our prob­lems. For in­stance, it was ut­ter ne­glect of the im­por­tance of sta­tis­tics when in 2004 the Eco­nomic Com­mis­sion for Africa al­most ru­ined their cen­tre for sta­tis­tics. When we picked up the pieces, we re­al­ized the ECA is about our­selves, not about some­body else. If we have to strengthen the ECA, we have to strengthen our­selves as Africans. In or­der to strengthen our­selves, we have to build re­la­tions with the United Na­tions Sta­tis­tics Com­mis­sion and in­crease our view on the meth­ods that are emerg­ing from there. With the Africa Sym­po­sium for Sta­tis­ti­cal De­vel­op­ment and other ini­tia­tives, we found our­selves mov­ing much faster and catch­ing up in our meth­ods. And the civil reg­is­tra­tion and vi­tal sta­tis­tics ini­tia­tive has raised a lot of in­ter­est among part­ners. The re­vi­tal­iza­tion of the ECA has brought in new energy but dark clouds are ac­cu­mu­lat­ing, we know the signs be­cause we know what suc­cess looks like.

Nige­ria has now be­come Africa’s largest econ­omy since they re­based it. What is in­volved in the process?

There’s quite a lot that is in­volved. We talked about the ne­glect by African gov­ern­ments of sta­tis­tics and in­vest­ments. Nige­ria is guilty of that too. They have ig­nored this for years; they never re­based their econ­omy. The struc­ture of their econ­omy changed rapidly and Nige­ria was not mea­sur­ing it ac­cu­rately. I think they just re­lied on mea­sur­ing how much oil they kept pump­ing, ig­nor­ing the for­mal sec­tor, ig­nor­ing Nol­ly­wood. They have now got it right.

In re­bas­ing, you know what the con­tri­bu­tions of dif­fer­ent sec­tors and struc­tures to the econ­omy are, and you al­lo­cate the weight and then do the es­ti­mate to see how weak the econ­omy is. Nige­ria is the big­gest econ­omy in Africa at the mo­ment, both in terms of pur­chas­ing power par­ity as well as nom­i­nal GDP num­bers. The big chal­lenge is that poverty is still im­mense and un­em­ploy­ment is still high. Growth has to bring with it ben­e­fits to com­mu­ni­ties. First step, get the sta­tis­tics right, which I think Nige­ria has achieved. Sec­ond, see the ben­e­fits of growth, which I think pol­i­cy­mak­ers are now grap­pling with.

Has the fail­ure to re­base been con­fined to Nige­ria only or there are other African coun­tries that have not re­based their economies in a long time?

There is still a lot of catch­ing up to do be­cause we need to cap­ture the struc­ture of the mod­ern econ­omy and get our source in­for­ma­tion, which is your trade sta­tis­tics, your agri­cul­tural sta­tis­tics, your whole­sale and man­u­fac­tur­ing sta­tis­tics, built into na­tional ac­counts. Not re­bas­ing has brought us a ter­ri­ble name in Africa. Peo­ple say: ‘Oh, look at how much their economies have just grown.’ Then you have to re­base us­ing the best meth­ods and the world turns around and says, ‘Those can­not be the re­sults’. They say, ‘ You are not mea­sur­ing’. When we mea­sure and we show change, they say, ‘This change is in­cred­i­bly huge.” They start doubt­ing the meth­ods, be­cause we do not do it regularly. This is how cyn­i­cal peo­ple can be. But we must do it regularly, so we can deal with this cyn­i­cism.

Does part of the cyn­i­cism come from the fact that a lot of the African economies are dom­i­nated by in­for­mal sec­tors which are dif­fi­cult to mea­sure?

The in­for­mal sec­tor is mea­sur­able and we come into this sys­tem with cred­i­ble meth­ods as cham­pi­ons of the in­for­mal sec­tor. For in­stance, in the SADC, our in­for­mal cham­pion is Tan­za­nia, which has es­tab­lished well-de­vel­oped meth­ods. In South Africa, the sec­tor is fairly small, but we still have a method to mea­sure it.

Over­all, what’s your mes­sage to our read­ers on the im­por­tance of sta­tis­tics?

Africa has come a long way; but it still has more to go. We have a very pro­fes­sional team of African statis­ti­cians that are try­ing to do the right thing and now the po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment al­lows for that. We have the African Char­ter which pre­scribes a code of con­duct. African sta­tis­ti­cal laws have been changed. Sta­tis­tics of­fices are be­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ized and get­ting bet­ter at their work and hu­man ca­pac­ity is at the top of the agenda. African sta­tis­tics are re­ally as good as any other sta­tis­tics. It may well be short in terms of scope of cov­er­age of sub­jects; but we are not far on that too. I think Afro-pes­simists and scep­tics have to start think­ing twice when look­ing at African statis­ti­cians. * The ti­tle of Morten Jer­ven’s book is Poor Num­bers: How We Are Mis­led by African De­vel­op­ment Sta­tis­tics and What to Do about It (Cor­nell Stud­ies in Po­lit­i­cal Econ­omy).

ITU/ R. Far­rell

Pali Le­hohla, Statis­ti­cian- Gen­eral of Sta­tis­tics South Africa.

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