Statistics. Picture: ISTOCK
Statistics. Picture: ISTOCK

When statisticians decided to track how well African countries were doing in moving towards their 2030 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs), they discovered a curious thing: no-one had the faintest idea. More accurately, on average, African governments keep statistics covering only about a third of the relevant data.

To be fair, the goals, which range from eradicating poverty and hunger to creating sustainable cities and communities, are overly complicated and sometimes unquantifiable. The millennium development goals they superseded had eight goals with 21 indicators. The SDGs have 17, with 232 indicators. Yet statisticians for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which compiled the report, are on to something. African states don’t know enough about their people. 

In this age of mass surveillance, that might seem counterintuitive. Surely governments, not to mention private companies, have too much information on their citizenry? In fact, in many African nations with weak states, big informal economies and undocumented communities, the problem is the reverse. How many people are there in Nigeria? What is the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe? How many people in Kibera, a huge informal settlement in Nairobi, have access to health care? The answers to such basic questions are: we don’t really know. 

Nigeria last conducted a census in 2006, when the population — a sensitive topic in which religion, regionalism and budget allocations are messily intertwined — came out at 140-million. These days it could be 180-million or 200-million. Or perhaps more. Or less. President Muhammadu Buhari recently complained that statistics quoted by international bodies, such as those alleging that Nigeria has more people living in absolute poverty than India, were “wild estimates” bearing “little relation to facts on the ground”. The riposte to that is simple. Work out what is happening and do something about it.

Likewise, unemployment is hard to define, let alone quantify, in a broken economy such as Zimbabwe’s where cited jobless statistics range from 5% to 95%. Is a struggling subsistence farmer or a street-side hawker jobless or gainfully employed? For that matter, what is the status of a government employee who receives her salary in a useless electronic currency? 

According to Seth Berkley, CEO of the Vaccine Alliance, keeping tabs on unregistered people in the sprawling “slums” of Africa’s increasingly massive megacities is harder than working out what is going on in isolated villages. If governments do not know whether a person exists, it is all too easy to ignore their rights — to health care, to education or to the vote. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation found that only eight countries in Africa register more than 90% of births. Tens of millions of people are literally invisible. Ibrahim, a Sudanese billionaire, calls data “the missing SDG”. 

Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, former director of the Centre for Democratic Development in Accra, argues that a national identity card, of the sort rolled out in India and now being introduced in Ghana, is a vital component of democracy. “For me, it’s the beginning of citizenship,” he says. 

Ghana is also trying to use technology, including the electronic tagging of houses and online applications for government services, to throw light on its opaque interactions with its 30-million citizens. The idea, says Mahamudu Bawumia, the country’s vice-president, is to draw people out of the informal sector and into the formal one, so tax can be levied and services provided.

One indication of the low levels of interaction between governments and their citizenry is taxation. Of 21 African countries surveyed by the OECD, the average tax take was 18.2% of output, with the Democratic Republic of Congo on a lowly 7.6%.

Even these numbers flatter. Most revenue comes from the likes of customs duty and mineral royalties, with few citizens, including rich ones, paying much income tax. The counterpart of no taxation without representation is “no representation without taxation”. Africa’s elites tend to sidestep the state’s inadequacies through accessing private health, private security, private education and even private electricity. Most poor people’s expectations of service provision are rock bottom.

Africans need to start demanding more of the governments that rule in their name. More data won’t fix that by itself. But if governments know — and publish — exactly what is going on, they have less excuse to ignore it.

At last week’s Financial Times Africa Summit in London, Bawumia said of Ghana’s drive to keep tabs on its citizenry: “No-one can hide.” He would have been better advised to say: “No-one should be forgotten.” 

© The Financial Times Limited 2019