Hijacking the African statistical development program

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.

“Just like Christ multiplied the penises”

The President of Venezuela has been at it again.  Not only is the economy tanking, but Maduro’s continual gaffes make him an object of ridicule.

The Latin Times reports that the President, already looking very presidential  in an “Adidas track suit in the bright red, blue and yellow colors of the Venezuelan flag” committed a Freudian slip recently when he “made allusion to the Biblical miracle of the seven loaves and fish, but said “penes”, meaning “penises” instead of “peces” (or fish).”   Somehow he made this slip when he was discussing education.  Specifically, the stated that “We need to go in school by school, student by student, high school by high school, community by community, get in there, multiply ourselves, just like Christ multiplied the penises – “, realizing his mistake, he paused to correct himself, ” – pardon me, the fishes and the loaves. Pardon the expression. Just like Christ multiplied the loaves and the fish.”

Here’s the video if you want to see Maduro in all his patriotic glory.

That isn’t all though folks, because last week he also said the government would give “children 35 million “books and pounds” (“libros y libras”) for Monday’s return to school” and this week he fell off his bike while leading a large procession of people.

The best part of all this though is Maduro’s response.  He acted like this was all part of his master plan.  Here is his great comeback:

“The right wing is stupid. As they want to censure the historic fact that we are going to give 35 million books to the boys and girls of Venezuela … I left them a little trap, and some fell for it,” he told supporters. “Some of the most stupid ones put the video on Twitter. Great! Because they show where I say we’re giving away 35 million books. At least people see it. If they hide things due to hatred of the fatherland, I’m obliged to find other ways.”

Domestic Abuse in Central Africa

Africa Review has a scary graphic on attitudes towards domestic violence in Central Africa:


I don’t know what the answer is but I assumed these numbers would be correlated with women’s education.  A cursory look at female literacy rates for these countries, however, doesn’t seem promising.  For 2011, 25.4% of adult females were literate in Chad, 44.2% in the CAR, 57% in Congo, D.R., and 78.4% in the Republic of Congo.

The Interwebs are not just for plumbing lessons!

Interesting NYT OP-ED, asking that poor people in developing nations be allowed to just hook up to the internet and have fun!

Here is a nice chunklet:

The Indian government has several valiant plans to bring Internet access to the villages, but they largely center on connecting government offices for ID databases and for software simulation to teach citizens skills like plumbing. Wouldn’t it be better if the poor were offered direct connectivity over their phones, free or cheap, and were left to decide what they wanted to do with it?

Mr. Zuckerberg’s belief that connectivity is a human right is honorable. Where he and his allies err is in imagining that fun is not, and in underestimating the power of entertainment to transform society. Chatting with friends online may not save the world, but if it can get more people to log on, the rest will follow.

Many years ago, when I worked for a lifestyle magazine, I was given my worst assignment ever. I had to call some of the richest people in southern India and ask them what they usually had for breakfast. The first man I called told me, “I don’t eat gold biscuits.” It was a well-deserved reprimand for presuming that rich people were somehow different from other humans.

It is equally ridiculous to presume that what poor people want from the Internet is lessons in plumbing.

The conflict between what the donors want and what the recipients want seems to almost be universal.


Details, Details…

There is a new NBER Working paper this week called “Was Stalin Necessary for Russia’s Economic Development?”by Anton Cheremukhin, Mikhail Golosov, Sergei Guriev, and Aleh Tsyvinski.

Admittedly I haven’t read the paper yet so my opinion may change, but I would be very concerned about writing a paper that claims:

1. To be able to measure TFP during Soviet Russia from 1928-1940 and Tsarist Russia from 1885-1913 (personally, I find measuring TFP under the best of circumstances extremely dubious.  See this paper by Jesus Felipe for some reasons why).

2. That “Stalin’s economic policies led to welfare loss of -24% of consumption in 1928-1940, but a +16% welfare
gain after 1941.”  Really, a 16% welfare gain?

They do add this helpful caveat though:  “[the welfare] number that does not take into account additional costs of political repression during this time period.”  It is statements like this which make economists so beloved by other social scientists. 

Nigeria’s magic middle class

Interesting article from Reuters about Nigeria’s booming (and treacherous) property market advises selling to the “middle-class”.

But as far as I can tell, the numbers just don’t add up:

the top-end range is dominated by well established players and developers should target middle-income workers in major cities, such Lagos, Abuja and the oil-hub Port Harcourt. The most popular units fall in a price bracket of 20-35 million naira ($123,000-$214,100), developers and estate agents say.

Nigeria’s middle class make up around 23 percent of the population and earn around 80,000- 100,000 naira ($490-$610) per month, according to report by investment bank Renaissance Capital.

“If you know the market, the people, focus on middle class and cherry pick your deals, you can clean out,”

Is Reuters trolling us? Or are they victims of yet another Nigerian scam? Let’s break it down.

$600 / month = $7200 / year, so a $140,000 house would be 20 times annual income and a 214,000 house would be 30 times annual income.


So a 10% downpayment would be two years income at the least? For this to work, mortgages must be cheap and easy, right?

there remains a problem with that huge latent demand. No mortgages. Unless you are willing to pay a 25 percent interest rate.

The mortgage debt-to-GDP ratio in Nigeria is under 0.5 percent, compared with 72 percent in the U.S. and over 30 percent in Malaysia and South Africa, government figures show.  

Never mind.

So developers can get rich by selling to people who can amass 20-30 years of annual income in personal savings? Good luck with that strategy. I’d hazard a guess that selling to the rich, to foreigners, to government, and to foreign firms is still the path to big money in the Nigerian property market.

PS: there is another great line in the piece: Nigerian banks don’t like giving out mortgages, which for clarity I think should have “to Nigerians” appended at the end.