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Africa: Towards Reality-Based Talk
Feb 5 2013 (130205)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
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
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
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzvlivbptXk) 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 (http://africasacountry.com), a
comment on Al Jazeera joining the celebration of Africa's
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"
(http://tinyurl.com/cqspz8m) and "Africa's Rise a Myth?
Bring on Authoritarian Capitalism Instead" by Adam
Robert Green (http://allafrica.com/stories/201301281658.html).
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
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
http://africanarguments.org / 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Poor numbers are too important to be dismissed as just
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
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
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
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
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
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
Al Jazeera Joins The 'Africa Rising' Bandwagon"
Africa is a Country
January 22, 2013
http://africasacountry.com / direct URL:
We recently (http://tinyurl.com/bgffuqq) 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
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 (http://www.alinstitute.org/default.aspx) (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
(http://tinyurl.com/aqstegg) 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 (http://www.montfleur.co.za/) 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
http://tinyurl.com/aull9qm and http://www.montfleur.co.za/about/scenarios.html 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
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
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