Professor under fire after critiquing African economic data



An SFU professor’s newly released book critiquing African statistical data has caused an uproar across Africa, resulting in his explusion from two international conferences this year.

Morten Jerven, an international studies professor who has spent four years researching in Africa, met great resistance from several powerful African officials after launching his book, Poor Numbers, earlier this year. Since then, Jerven has been called a “hired gun” of the West who must be “stopped in his tracks” before he completely discredits African governments.

Poor Numbers’ main conclusion points to the lack of knowledge people actually have about economic development in Africa due to poorly collected economic data. Although issues with recording such data occur in every country, Jerven argues that there is a radical difference when you consider a third-world country because much of the important economic activity is not properly recorded or reported.

“Some of the economic statistics is pure guesswork. A lot of it is completely meaningless.”

– Morten Jerven,
SFU professor and author


Jerven explained, “Some of the economic statistics is pure guesswork. A lot of it is completely meaningless, and there is no way you can for instance download the data and pretend you’re saying something useful.”

The problem with these discrepancies is that measures like GDP are used to decide whether a country is low-income or not. This data can help a country decide whether to pursue a specific policy — if it proved successful — and can also serve as a benchmark for benefactor nations or the World Bank.

However, with poor statistical reporting, the data can be skewed one way or another to the country’s benefit, argues Jerven. “If a country like Southern Sudan wished to under report its income so that it continues to be classified as a poor country, so that it continues to get support from the World Bank, it can do so at the expense of another country that could have got that money,” said Jerven.

Jerven uses the example of Malawi, which according to his findings overstated its agricultural growth for many years to the extent that maize production was assumed to be 50 to 60 per cent higher than it actually was. “That’s many many meals,” said Jerven. “The practical implication is that we might go around thinking that someone is well-fed and that they’re going to school and they’re out of the poverty line when they’re actually not.”

Jerven’s book has been praised by the IMF, the African Development Bank, and even Bill Gates, who says the book “makes a strong case” for casting doubt on official GDP numbers. However, not all feedback has been positive.


African officials have called Jerven a “hired gun” of the West who must be “stopped in his tracks.”


Jerven’s critics, led by South African statistician-general Pali Lehohla, pressured a United Nations commission to remove him from the speakers list at a conference in September in Addis Ababa, threatening that no South African delegates would attend otherwise. Jerven was also prevented from speaking at a conference in Paris in May, where his session was moved to be behind closed doors.

Zambia’s central statistical office has also joined the debate. In a 13-page statement, the office accused Jerven as having a “hidden agenda” to “discredit” African officials. It also accused him of “sneaking in” to government offices and “taking advantage” of junior statisticians.

Jerven replied to these comments on the site African Arguments, saying, “The allegations that I am a ‘hired gun’ or ‘that I have not done my research’ are of course ridiculous and entirely false. With Lehohla putting his emphasis on “stopping Jerven in his tracks” before he “hijacks the African statistical agenda” the immediate danger is that good initiatives will be suspended and cancelled. In the long term, statistical offices in the region may struggle for survival.”

Although many are still angry, it seems that tides are turning in favour of opening dialogue. In December, Jerven will attend the ninth African Symposium on Statistical Development in Gaborone to have an “open and frank discussion” to resolve his differences with some of Africa’s most important statisticians.

“That invitation was written by the people who are the angriest at me,” said Jerven. “It will probably be me and nine officials on the other side of the table with their cannons aimed at me, so we will see . . . it’s going to be fun.”


  1. The irony is that Jerven’s argument (not Jerven as an individual) may actually have many African supporters. For the longest time, there has been an implicit and continued stereotype of Africa as a basket case in need of foreign intervention by a cabal of western bureaucrats, not for profits and African politicians.

    It is important that true numbers and statistics be produced. Especially if these numbers tell another story – either positive or negative. If the challenge is getting statistical evidence then statistical offices should be better funded.

    There are many African voices that have argued hoarse that Africa can survive without aid or handouts. The current reports written to suit alternative agendas divert the attention and focus of the governments from their people to the begging tables in western nations.

    The issue we should be more concerned about if not whether Africans are mad at Jerven for his book but whether the world, and in particular the west is ready for an African story that changes the conversation and challenges the stereotype of the continent being a basket case as we saw in the case of Nigeria and Ghana upwardly revising their GDP estimates that gave them middle income status.

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