Africa: Why Economist Get it Wrong

Africa : Why Economists Get it Wrong (2015) by Morten Jerven is a very interesting book on how economists have misused dubious statistics on Africa and erroneously constructed a narrative on how African development has failed. Books on Africa such as Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion and William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest for Growth are built on very shaky foundations according to Jerven.

Jerven is an economic historian with a PhD from the LSE and wrote the highly acclaimed book Wrong Numbers that seems to cover much of the ground that this book does.

Jerven describes how economic growth is misunderstood because good African statistics often start in 1960 and are not very strong and because low commodity prices and other factors, possibly HIV and some very poor governments led Africa to have low growth in the 1980s and the 1990s which was then declared as normal despite it effectively being two poor decades.

The book also makes the point that if growth from 1960 to 1990 is divided into two 15 year sections Africa does fairly well in each, only huge growth in the 1975 to 1990 era by South and East Asia making Africa not look particularly good. It’s curious here that for a book written in 2015 that the statistics stop in 1990.

Jerven then looks at how poor statistics are compressed and combined to present a picture of poor growth in Africa in the pre-colonial era. This also includes some asides into how The Economist and other news magazines have declared Africa lost and then doing well in the space of two or three years. He also points out how a number of the explanations for growth successes may be post fact rationalizations. The idea that growth and wealth might bring in good institutions rather than the other way around is very interesting.

The book also describes the big problems with modern African statistics in more detail. Due to low populations, low wealth and statistical tools designed to measure wealthy countries economies the accuracy of African statistics is very questionable. A number of African states have errors that are huge, in the order of 1/3 or more of the GDP per capita when comparing across different statistical agencies. This indicates huge inconsistencies and problems. Also rebasing is not done frequently enough and when it is done tends to have such a big effect that it overshadows actual economic changes.

The book concludes that poor numbers and dubious explanations have combined to create poor economic studies of Africa. The differences within Africa and the relative lack of wealth may have caused economists to make considerable errors. Jerven asserts that there is no Bottom Billion and that development stories have been driven by narrative fallacies based on quicksand. It’s a really interesting idea and even if wrong the book is definitely worth reading.

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