IMF Survey : African Policymakers Tackle Data Challenges

February 24, 2016

  • IMF co-hosts one of largest statistics conferences in Africa
  • Reliable data are critical for policymaking and require further investment
  • The IMF’s enhanced General Data Disseminated System supports data transparency

Comparable, high quality, and timely data are critical to support sound policymaking and foster economic growth in the region, conference participants hear.

The conference debated the particular data challenges facing African policymakers. L-r: Min Zhu, Louis Marc Ducharme, Seth Terkper, and Antoinette Sayeh (photo: STA/IMF)

The conference debated the particular data challenges facing African policymakers. L-r: Min Zhu, Louis Marc Ducharme, Seth Terkper, and Antoinette Sayeh (photo: STA/IMF)

Investment in Statistics

Senior officials from over forty African countries, as well as representatives from academia, banks, rating agencies, think tanks, and international organizations debated the particular data challenges facing African policymakers at a conference in Accra, Ghana on February 2. It was one of the largest conferences on the continent on the importance of data for better macroeconomic policies. The conference was organized by the Government of Ghana, the IMF’s Statistics Department (STA), and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID).

In opening remarks, Seth Terkper, Minister of Finance and Economic Planning of Ghana, stressed that enhanced data for better policies is a “fundamental key” to accelerating the economic growth of the region in the coming decades. He added that “all of our efforts to strengthen our statistical framework contribute to enhancing our capacity to implement better policies, which also enhances our relationship with credit rating agencies, thus allowing us to deepen our access to markets.”

Min Zhu, IMF Deputy Managing Director, delivered the event’s keynote speech, emphasizing that “in Africa, as elsewhere, we need to jump ahead of crisis management when it comes to data, and seek to enhance the gathering, processing, dissemination, and analysis of data to help us formulate and implement the best possible set of economic and financial policies.”

Investment to improve public policy

Drawing on the experience of the 2008-09 global crisis, there was consensus that African countries should strive to invest in and enhance their statistics, including their timeliness, periodicity, coverage, and reliability. As the Senegalese Minister of Finance, Amadou Ba, put it: "Managing the economy without statistics is like asking a blind to orient himself in a city that he does not know."

For many countries, better data meant getting the basics right, such as rebasing their GDP, extending the coverage of government finance statistics, and ensuring timely publication (dissemination) to improve transparency. Many data challenges were fleshed out, such as low investment in skilled human resources, the lack of information technology capacity, difficulties in measuring the informal economy, and inadequate institutional and legislative frameworks.

At the same time, participants shared a vision and some common goals for the way forward. This encompassed the need for transparency and comparability of statistics, the need for integrity and independence of the institutions producing statistics, and pride and determination to make every possible effort under often difficult circumstances to promote the production of timely and high-quality data for the benefit of policymakers.

Speakers also recognized that improving statistics is not an end in itself, but an investment to improve public policy. In that respect, countries suggested that every effort should be made to demonstrate what could be the tangible outcomes of such investment. As spending should not just reflect donor generosity, participants pleaded that the national authorities take ownership and give higher priority to the production of statistics in their national budgets.

Cooperation and innovation to learn from each other

To tackle some of the challenges of improving data, participants focused on the need for better collaboration across agencies to address institutional aspects of enhancing data, addressing the challenges with innovations and technological advances, and ensuring an appropriate legal framework for statistics to safeguard integrity and clarify who the custodian of statistics is. A number of speakers proposed and supported an initiative for the creation of a forum that would allow for better sharing of experiences across African countries on how to overcome challenges and to learn from each others' experiences.

Participants recognized that regional integration requires timely and comparable data that align with international methodologies and standards and have broad sector coverage. In that context, speakers highlighted the need for stronger peer-to-peer learning mechanisms in overcoming common challenges, as well as the importance of sharing country experiences. Countries with more advanced statistics could take the role of "a locomotive" and foster data improvement in other countries in the region.

How the IMF supports data transparency

Participants agreed that it is not sufficient to just produce data but to also make data available to the public. This would support sound decisions by the government and the private sector, enhance accountability, and ensure the smooth functioning of economies. Speakers enthusiastically welcomed the IMF’s new Enhanced General Data Disseminated System (e-GDDS) that envisages the publication of key macroeconomic data in a disciplined manner through a national summary data page with the help of cloud-based technology, thus greatly reducing country reporting burdens; the IMF is supporting the implementation of the e-GDDS in partnership with the African Development Bank and with financial assistance from DfID. Discussants identified some particular challenges in getting data into the public domain, such as information technology challenges, institutional constraints, and the need to coordinate publication across all main national data-providing agencies (national statistical offices, central banks, ministries of finance), but those could be overcome through determined efforts.

Capacity building

The conference highlighted IMF’s extensive capacity development in statistics to African countries. Several success stories were mentioned, such as the IMF’s Statistics Department support to countries in rebasing their GDP or introducing quarterly national accounts statistics. Min Zhu assured participants that the IMF stands ready to maintain this extensive support going forward.

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