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Beyond Conventional Metrics for African Progress

The pandemic has exposed global perceptions about Africa to be prejudicial and based on poor numbers, ill-suited metrics and dated constructs.

16 February 2022 ·   3 min read

Beyond Conventional Metrics for African Progress

The first problem is perpetuated by a willingness of the West to absorb bad news over good news and an inability to trust the instructive lessons emerging from Africa. The issue has undermined progress across the continent, distorting expectations.

This was perfectly illustrated by the early detection of the Omicron variant in South Africa, which resulted in knee-jerk travel bans from Western nations as the data and rigour of South African scientists were met with scepticism.

Stereotypical pessimism

Addressing this stereotype and shifting the mindset from entrenched “bad news” to reliable “good news” starts with improving statistical capacity. In the book Poor Numbers, Simon Fraser University academic, Morten Jerven, thrust this into mainstream policy and development debate.

Not only are Africa's statistics inaccurate, incomplete or, at best, outdated, but the effect of the structural adjustments based on these numbers is poorly recorded and misunderstood.

But poor numbers in Africa are not simply a result of old or incomplete statistics. These are a consequence of misguided economic measures, dated constructs and linear metrics for tracking progress and performance that are ill-suited to the African context.

Outdated metrics

Conventional economic measures and approaches have failed to grasp the deep complexity of African development dynamics. The obsession with size — “big is always best” — and relentless pursuit of growth has narrowed developmental options, distorting progress and comparative performance.

Population dynamics and the hype of the demographic dividend are examples of this. Africa is undeniably the most prominent demographic story of our generation. Conventional wisdom suggests that population growth is a crucial driver behind economic growth.

The demographic dividend and the super-cycle of commodities fuelled excitement around the “Africa rising” narrative of the early 2000s and delivered the best growth decade on record around that time.

But Africa is not conventional. Growth and investment faded fast, and the pessimist rhetoric crept in, referencing low growth and lackluster development.

A multidimensional model is needed

As with population, basing the African narrative on linear economic growth is too one-dimensional for the continent's complexity. Africa comprises 55 dramatically different countries, 1.4 billion people, and a wide diversity of cultures, dialects and levels of development. Add to that are vast differentials in industry and urbanisation.

But African countries have consistently made up the bulk of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies over the past 15 years. These typically come off a low base and contribute marginally to Africa's overall growth, given their size.


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In Africa, country-specific assessments using granular growth and development provide a more accurate and realistic representation. This contributes toward improved contextual relevance, essential in navigating the nuances across such a vast region.

Developing a new set of measures

In the absence of reliable numbers and fit-for-use metrics, it is essential to build the continent's data and insights in an inclusive effort to measure what truly counts for Africans. This will assist in the development of a new narrative, which will come from stories of success across the continent, where empirics can be extracted and measures fit for current and future purposes developed.

Often overlooked is that Africa pioneered mobile technology for the developing world. Innovative solutions to plug the gaps and provide access and connectivity have brought about cashless transactions, a unique version of e-commerce and access to affordable fresh produce, among many other applications.

All of these rely on the ubiquity of mobile phones in Africa and the rise of the smartphone that has revolutionised the continent through real-time service delivery and improved day-to-day living.

Today, 700 million smartphones across the continent have enabled those previously economically excluded access to a range of facilities from financial services and mapping to healthcare and edutech.

The entrepreneurial dividend

Mobile connectivity and data have improved the lives of millions through greater efficiencies while igniting new areas of economic productivity by awakening dormant opportunities and finding workable solutions to some of the continent's most daunting challenges.

This is on the back of sheer entrepreneurial flair and increasing access through mobile penetration and plummeting costs. The key to the African story, such input factors and developments have not been captured by the conventional economic measures used to describe growth and development.

More than ever, there is a need to build a contextual way to track economic activity in Africa. This starts with identifying and measuring what counts and moving beyond “size-and-growth.” These elements bring dynamism and are part of the DNA behind a high-energy culture of excitement and opportunity.

Africa's new narrative in an endemic world must embrace the complexities of the present, be mindful of the past and be fit for a future. It must allow for realistic expectations and realisable development outcomes.

This article originally appeared on Inc.Africa


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