Tag Archives: data

International Women’s Day

International-Womens-Day LogoThe Guardian’s Datablog celebrated International Women’s Day with an interactive map showing the evolution of women’s political rights around the world. The map shows the expansion of women’s suffrage, the right to stand for election, and the first woman elected to office by year around the world. You can also look at specific countries and see the proportion of women in office, the female unemployment rate, deaths per childbirth, and a host of other country-level statistics. The site is certainly worth a look.

It also raises some interesting questions about the level of gender inequality around the world.

On his blog at The Atlantic, Philip Cohen exposed a classic factoid that proves to be incorrect: that women, while performing two-thirds of the world’s work receive less than 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property. Along the way, he highlights the problems of global economic statistics more generally. Caveat Emptor!

Measuring Economic Activity and Development in Africa

Lagos, Nigeria

Lagos, Nigeria

According to a report by Reuters, Nigeria’s gross domestic product will grow by 40 percent in the second quarter of 2012. If correct, Nigeria’s GDP would increase from $273 billion to $370 billion, and Nigeria would become Africa’s second largest economy in Africa. Growth forecasts suggest that Nigeria would surpass South Africa to become Africa’s largest economy within a few years.

The move has significant implications for Nigeria and the rest of the developing world. Symbolically, Nigeria’s newfound economic prowess could afford the country greater leadership and influence on the continent, particularly within West Africa.

Nigeria’s larger economy would also have important policy effects for international institutions. By increasing its GDP, Nigeria’s debt ratio (the size of the country’s national debt as a proportion of the total size of its economy) will nearly be cut in half. At the same time, the improved economic status of the country could affect its ability to secure concessionary loans. When Ghana’s GDP was increased by more than 60 percent in 2010, its debt-to-GDP ratio fell from 40% to 24% and the World Bank reclassified it from a low income to a lower-middle income country.

So how did Nigeria and Ghana grow their economies so dramatically? In truth, they didn’t. Gross domestic product is the total value of goods and services produced win a country in a given year. But in most countries in most years, economists don’t actually go out and add everything up. Instead, they start with a year in which a fairly accurate survey was conducted and adjust it annually based on other variables like population growth. In both Ghana and Nigeria, the dramatic increase in GDP was not the result of sudden and dramatic economic growth. Rather, in both cases, the upward shift in GDP was the result of how the number was calculated and which base year was used.

This methodology raises several important questions.

First, how accurate is the baseline year? If the baseline year is incorrect, then all subsequent calculations based on that initial estimate also be inaccurate. The exclusion of the informal sector, which can include everything from sales by unlicensed street vendors to prostitution to the sale and trafficking of illicit drugs, often leads GDP to be underestimated. A 2010 World Bank report estimated the size of the informal economy in the United States as 8.8 percent of the formal economy. The median figure for developing countries was 41 percent. In the countries with the largest informal economies (such as Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Georgia, and Panama), it exceeded 60 percent.

Second, how old is the baseline year? When Ghana’s GDP increased in 2010, it was because Ghana shifted its baseline year from 1993 to 2006. Similarly, Nigeria’s baseline year shift from 1990 to 2008 will likely account for a significant portion of the increase in its GDP. Think for a moment about the importance of the baseline year. In the early 1990s, the cell phones which are no so ubiquitous across Africa will still in their infancy, widely unavailable on the continent. This one example illustrates how dramatically the structure of an economy (and a society) can shift in a relatively short period of time.

This means that GDP figures for developing countries are best thought of as general estimates falling within a wide margin of error rather than concrete numbers that reflect real, on the ground economic activity. It teaches us that we should be critical consumers of data.

Those interested in learning more about this questions would be well advised to seek out Morten Jerven’s new book, Poor Numbers: Facts, Assumptions and Controversy in African Development Statistics, forthcoming from Cornell University Press.

What do you think? Should we continue to use GDP as a proxy measure for development? If so, how can we acknowledge the limits of that figure while making meaningful decisions? If not, what do we use instead? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

More Better Research

A protestor at Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity asks for sane research.


A protestor at Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity asks for sane research.

Duncan Green

has a great entry this week on the need to rethink development research. Noting that every development report (not to mention every student thesis) seems to end with a call for more research, he asks if such a call is justified. Is there any area, he rhetorically asks, where we need less research? He offers  an interesting proposal, though, to rethink where we need more research. Rather than focusing on specific issue areas, he suggests we develop more thematic approaches that cut across traditional issue areas.

Meanwhile, Texas in Africa raises some great questions over the nature of research and proof, asking do social scientists think? The debate, which centers on the nature of proof in development planning, provides useful advice for all social scientists. Both are recommended reading for students of political science.

World Bank Data

The World Bank recently announced that, effective July 1, much of its data would be available to the public online. It’s a rich dataset, focused on living standards around the world, including more than 2,000 indicators, many of which span more than 50 years. The data is a veritable treasure-trove for those interested in development. Happy reading!