African Arguments has an interesting article on the intersection of academia and politics.
The economist Morten Jerven has an excellent new book out called Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It. Jerven was supposed to give a speech Tuesday at the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA) about his work but it was cancelled for political reasons.
Jerven alleges that Pali Lehohla, South Africa’s Statistician General, issued an ultimatum to UNECA that “if they let me speak he would withdraw all South African delegates from the UNECA meetings.”
Lehohla, pictured above in the yellow suit, admitted his disagreement with Jerven’s work. Apparently it has touched a nerve throughout Africa. Here are some allegations:
1. Lehohla argues that Jerven “has not done his research” and “that we agreed as statisticians that we shall not engage him any further until he can demonstrate that he has done scholarly work on Statistical Development in Africa.”
2. Mr Lehohla adds that “Morten Jerven will highjack the African statistical development programme unless he is stopped in his tracks.” Given what I’ve read of African statistical agencies in Jerven’s work, I can only hope that he does highjack their program.
3. Dimitri Sanga, former Director of the African Centre for Statistics at the UNECA, characterizes Jerven’s work as “sulphurous.” I’m not even sure what that means but it sounds like an insult.
4. The Zambian Statistical Office accuses Jerven of “sneaking
into CSO premises and collecting information on such a big institution without any authorization at all.” As if that weren’t slanderous enough, the go on to add that “
It is clear that Mr. Jerven had some hidden agenda which leaves us to conclude that he was probably a hired gun meant to discredit African National Accountants and eventually create work and room for more European based technical assistance missions.”
Jerven took the high road in the controversy and stated that “It is unfortunate that some people perceive my book as a criticism of the people working in African Statistics, when my intent is to elevate the discussion on how to support African countries in improving their statistical systems.”
It is rare that academic work makes such waves in the real world and I think the backlash is actually encouraging because it opening up debate (and shedding more light) on issues that rarely get discussed. It reminds me a bit of the reaction that Krugman got in East Asia when he compared growth in the region to the Soviet experience, arguing that much of the growth was fueled by factor accumulation and not productivity. The initial reaction was sharply negative but a couple of years later Krugman was invited to Singapore to discuss ways in which the country could raise productivity. Hopefully something similar will happen in this case.