Poor Numbers: why is Morten Jerven being prevented from presenting his research at UNECA? – By Magnus Taylor


Pali Lehohla, South African Statistician General (left) is accused by Professor Morten Jerven of blocking his appearance this week at the UNECA.

Morten Jerven, author of Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It alleges that he has been prevented from presenting his research at the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA) due to lobbying from South African Statistician General Pali Lehohla.

Jerven, whose book was launched in London by the Royal African Society in May 2013, was scheduled to give a speech at the UNECA on Tuesday, but was told that it had been cancelled at the last minute.

Said Jerven, “I was informed on the phone by UNECA that Pali Lehohla issued an ultimatum to UNECA that if they let me speak he would withdraw all South African delegates from the UNECA meetings.”

He adds: “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.”

Mr Lehohla, whom African Arguments spoke with on Tuesday, has admitted to strongly disagreeing with many of the conclusions in Jerven’s work. Specifically, he argues that Professor Jerven “has not done his research.”

Mr Lehohla stated that “we agreed to be in Vancouever (sic) [at a conference organised by Jerven] to witness the launch of Prof Jerven’s book and critique its content. Subsequent to 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.”

Mr Lehohla also stated that he “Morten Jerven will highjack the African statistical development programme unless he is stopped in his tracks.”

Mr Lehohla did not, however, admit to lobbying for the cancellation of Jerven’s ECA talk, referring African Arguments to ECA officials for an explanation.

Whilst Mr Lehohla stated that “˜African statisticians’ had decided to reject Jerven’s work after their trip to Vancouver, he did not explain why Jerven was originally invited to speak at the ECA event, nor the reasons for the last minute cancellation

ECA officials have not responded to requests from African Arguments for information in this regard.

Dimitri Sanga, former Director of the African Centre for Statistics at the UNECA, has also written a rebuttal of Jerven’s work, in which he describes Jerven’s November 2012 article for African Arguments (reproduced by The Guardian) as “sulphurous.”

The Zambian Statistical Office, whose low capacity for statistical collection and analysis was critiqued in Poor Numbers, also released a “˜reaction’ to Jerven’s research. It states:

“Mr. Jerven has based much of his conclusions on the interviews he had held with two Junior officers (Statisticians) in 2007 and 2010 with no attempt to seek for clarification from CSO Senior Management. He had actually sneaked into CSO premises and started collecting information on such a big institution without any authorization at all.”

They conclude: “It is clear from the asymmetrical information that he had collected 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.”

The Institute of Statistics for Cameroun, by contrast, supported Jerven’s work, writing in its “˜reaction’ that “our comments are not intended to prevent or discourage the article’s author from presenting its points. With this contribution, we hope to make it clear that African statistics are not so bad after all.”

Professor Jerven’s research is, however, peer reviewed and he is widely published in respected academic journals such as the Review of Income and Wealth and African Affairs.

Jerven also told African Arguments, “that I had not done my research is nonsense of course…both IMF and AfDB redid my work and found the same patterns.”

When Jerven attempted to facilitate an intervention from a Senior African Development Bank economist he was advised “to step back and find a way of making your point, which is legitimate…on a one-to-one by individual organizations and selected countries to give your view point and also to hear theirs.”

Jerven has stated publicly that “If Pali has questions about my report and its conclusions, I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further in hopes of strengthening the development community’s understanding of the existing problems and improvement opportunities.”

Magnus Taylor is Editor of African Arguments.

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3 thoughts on “Poor Numbers: why is Morten Jerven being prevented from presenting his research at UNECA? – By Magnus Taylor

  1. Suppressing dialogue, as Lehohla has done, is a sure sign that Jerven shone light on a real issue. And conspiracy theories from Zambia? Surely it’s more effective to simply prioritize the need for improvements in African statistical capacity.

    Agree with Mr. Blades’ statement:

    “Derek Blades, formerly head of the OECD’s National Accounts Division and currently a consultant for the World Bank found the news disturbing and said, ‘Attempts to stifle free debate about statistics is simply unacceptable in my view.'”

  2. The call from the UN’s High Level Panel is for “A New Data Revolution”.

    As it says in their report [page 23], quoting their Bali Communique of 28 March 2013:

    “Too often, development efforts have been hampered by a lack of the most basic data about the social and economic circumstances in which people live… Stronger monitoring and evaluation at all levels, and in all processes of development (from planning to implementation) will help guide decision making, update priorities and ensure accountability… We must also take advantage of new technologies and access to open data for all people.”

    PS. Also not sure about a man in a yellow suit!

  3. It seems bewildering to me that Lehohla would prevent Dr Jerven from speaking on his work. In my opinion this equates to a suppression of information. As stated in the article and already known from my knowledge of Dr Jervens work, his book has been peer reviewed and posseses information that could be extremely helpful to future statictical analysis and data gathering in Africa. It seems Lehohla is keen to maintain the status quo, regardless of glaring inefficiencies. I would encourage Dr Jerven to continue to pursue this matter.

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