Morton Jerven: Poor Numbers

Book cover Poor numbersIn his recent book entitled Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about it, Morten Jerven analyses the production and use of African economic statistics. Where do these statistics originate from and how accurate are they? Jerven argues that reliable statistics, including estimates of economic growth and per-capita income, are central to the operation of governments in developing countries and vital for the NGOs that provide financial aid to them. On the basis of research in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana, he examines what we know about income and growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, measurements of African wealth and progress, facts and assumptions, lessons from the datasets, and possible future improvements.

Jerven highlights how the statistical capacities of Sub-Saharan African countries have fallen into disarray and how their statistics give a false impression of the actual state of affairs. He considers the estimated GDP figures in particular and argues that it has been difficult for African countries to provide accurate measurements of income because of the presence of large subsistence economies and unrecorded transactions. What such problems with measurement imply is that estimates concerning GDP can be grossly under- or overestimated. The paucity of accurate statistics is not merely a technical issue but is having an impact on the welfare of citizens in these countries. Although scholars are applying increasingly sophisticated econometric measures, no statistical techniques can be a substitute for partial and/or unreliable data.

Controversy surrounded Jerven’s work when a speech he was scheduled to give to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in September 2013 was unexpectedly cancelled. Some African statisticians strongly disagree with the conclusions of the book.

Morten Jerven is an economic historian with a PhD from the London School of Economics. He has published widely on African economic development, particularly on patterns of economic growth and development statistics. Since 2009 he has been working at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, where he is currently an assistant professor.

Morton Jerven will deliver the first ASC Leiden Annual Public Lecture on 7 November 2013.

For more information about the author, reviews of his book and the text of the cancelled UNECA speech, see


Katrien Polman

October 2013