The environment is rich in phenomena that has been observed, analyzed, commoditized and, in many cases, exploited. But much like the precious mineral and natural gas resources of the continent, for local societies, the tools for extraction are sparse or absent. In this context we aren’t talking about refineries, we’re talking about the capacity to collect, understand, and manipulate statistics and quantitative research to build narratives that change behavior or encourage action.
Shanta Devarajan recently pointed out this ‘statistical tragedy’ of Africa:
To show that this is not an arcane point, consider the case of Ghana, which decided to update its GDP last year to the 1993 system. When they did so, they found that their GDP was 62 percent higher than previously thought. Ghana’s per capita GDP is now over $1,000, making it a middle-income country. The “tragedy” is that we were happily publishing GDP statistics and growth figures for Ghana over the last decades, when in fact the national accounts were understating GDP by 62 percent…. The tragedy is that donors, including the World Bank, undertake statistical activities without ensuring that they are consistent with the NSDS. Why? Because they need data for their own purpose—to publish reports—and this means getting it faster, with little time to strengthen the countries’ statistical capacity. But just as Africans turned around their growth tragedy, they can turn around their statistical tragedy.
It’s no secret that high-level skills in the areas of science, technology, and the maths are rare. This is inevitable in an environment with sparse resources for good education or in countries that have been too politically volatile for education to be possible. For instance, Liberia, where two generations essentially had no access to any sort of modern education due to civil war and ongoing conflict.
But if data is truly the new oil, then mining it, understanding it and building on it is essential to the continent’s future. How do we solve this problem? Education, for teaching basic and advanced maths are one necessity. Building more technical skills like programing is another. Open data initiatives, like the one launched in Kenya earlier this year, are also important. But the more critical need is to build capacity for the conceptual, abstract, and analytic disciplines made up all of these skills combined. This problem is being addressed by a growing number of institutions like the African Leadership Academy.
Where these skills already exist, it’s also necessary to help to surface and distribute the results to the international community. From the Database of African Theses and Dissertations (DATAD):
For many reasons, African research results are rarely indexed in major international databases, a problem that is further exacerbated by the inaccessibility of theses and dissertations completed in the region, many of which contain local empirical data that is not available in international literature. This inability to learn about and access African material is frustrating to students and scholars–both on the continent and overseas.
That said, there are a lot of great resources for quantitative research and analysis related to African countries. Most of them from international NGOs, local governments, or passionate foreigners (like myself), as well as resources like Afrographique, OAfrica, The World Bank, and too many open data initiatives to list here. Hopefully, these resources and others are serving to help build capacity for Africa to craft its own data narratives…refineries for new oil.
Photo Credit: Jon