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Spurious statistics: why figures on Zimbabwe’s ‘lost growth’ mislead

There is a lot that is written about Zimbabwe that is misleading. But sometimes a piece appears that really beats the field. This week a blog from the Centre for Global Development in Washington joins that category. This claims that ‘misrule’ has cost Zimbabwe US$96 billion.

I would normally ignore such articles, but the CGD regularly produces some quite good material, if a bit close to the Washington view of the world on occasions. I also have been sent this article several times by my regular ‘correspondents’ to show (again) how wrong I am about Zimbabwe. So I thought it deserved a bit more attention, and now a blog, as I think it illustrates rather well a wider problem of the use of statistics in misleading ways.

This is not exclusive to this piece. Far from it. For example, a few weeks back when I was in South Africa I was reading the Cape Times over breakfast and was confronted by a whole page on Zimbabwe (the hook was Mugabe’s birthday) written by Professor Robert Rotberg from the Harvard Kennedy School.  This purported to show how disastrous things were through ten points. I was so flabbergasted by the content that I totted up the ‘facts’ that were presented that could be challenged with real field data that I and others had collected. There were 12 – one for each of the ten points made and two more besides. It was quite extraordinary how an author (nay illustrious ‘expert’) and an editor (of a perfectly respectable paper) could get away with it. But sadly it happens nearly every day, and most such interventions go completely unchallenged.

Anyway, the point is that in writing this blog each week I have plenty of material to reflect on, but most is not worth the time of day. However, I thought I should offer some response to the CGD piece, given its provenance and the way it illustrates a wider problem. The blog is written by Todd Moss who is COO and Senior Fellow at CGD, and was formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State and previously advisor to the Chief Economist in the Africa Region at the World Bank. He certainly has impressive credentials, and has written other material on Zimbabwe, but I cannot see from the website whether he has actually done field research in the country.

So where does the $96 billion figure come from? The blog presents the sorry story of Zimbabwe’s collapse in the formal economy from the early 2000s to 2009 and its slow and weak recovery since. The indicator used is the standard GDP measure. This is compared with a ‘what if?’ argument. What if Zimbabwe instead of declining grew at the rate seen in Zambia? The difference between the two scenarios is presented as the ‘loss’ that Zimbabwe has suffered.

The main argument is encapsulated in a graph, with the large deficit highlighted. The blog urges readers to tweet the graph to the world. Here is a very explicit and in some ways quite effective attempt at creating a ‘killer fact’, one that will become a focus for media articles, and a hook in the wider discourse (a phenomenon that Duncan Green from Oxfam has written on).

So why is this ‘fact’, and its wider narrative problematic? There is no denying the catastrophic collapse of the formal economy in the 2000s, and also the weakness of the recovery since, now faltering once again. Equally, the scale of graft and unaccountability was recently illustrated in the media exposes of highly paid parastatal officials, although these have now been capped. But what else needs to be taken into account when making an assessment? Here are four points.

  • First is the problematic statistic of GDP, particularly in African contexts. Morten Jerven has written lucidly about this issue in his fantastic book Poor Numbers; a book I highly recommend to Dr Moss, and anyone else thinking about African economies. GDP numbers are usually fabrications with little basis in reality, and they shift dramatically depending on the assumptions made and the data collection techniques used. They show something about the formal economy, at least in terms of trends (no denying that for Zimbabwe), but they need to be viewed with very large pinches of salt.
  •  Second the official statistics only pick up a fraction of the range of economic activity, especially in economies that have large informal sectors. With the restructuring of the economy since 2000, the informal sector in Zimbabwe has grown massively. Tendai Biti, the former MDC Finance Minister, argued recently that it represented most of the economy, perhaps over 80%. If so then the recent figures in the CGD graph represent only represent a small proportion of total economic activity and should be multiplied many times – in which case the disparity with Zambia would shrink dramatically. Of course this would be equally spurious, as Mr Biti’s guess is just that, and in fact we have no idea what the scale of economic activity is, as the standard statistics do not tell us, as statistical services measure only a fraction of the ‘informal sector’; a point made forcefully by Professor Jerven.
  •  Third, Zambia’s economy has certainly grown but from a low base. In the 1980s and 90s in particular the economy was in dire straits. So the growth rate that has been used in the projection is to some degree a bounce back, driven in large part by the growth of commodity prices internationally. As a resource dependent economy, the dramatic growth is highly dependent on the price of copper, for example. And this has accelerated, in turn driving growth. There are of course other vibrant sectors, including tourism, but Zambia’s economic growth, and its projection into middle income status, is based on quite fragile and narrow foundations, with question marks being raised about job creation.
  • Fourth, we have to ask how economic activity is distributed to make any useful assessment in relation to development. The benefits of growth in Zambia is massively concentrated. The bigger winners are international mining capital and South African retail and services. Of course this generates some jobs and tax revenues, but the distributive effects of such forms of growth have to be questioned. A broader based growth grounded in redistributive policies is perhaps more sustainable, and certainly more equitable in the longer term. Zimbabwe has certainly not got there yet, but the land reform for example has laid the foundations for this in the agricultural sector.

I could go on. If we probe a bit we can see that the ‘killer fact’ loses its shine quite dramatically. Its construction and deployment in an essentially political argument is clearly problematic. It would be just as problematic for example if Professor Jonathan Moyo – Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information and spin doctor extraordinaire – used the same figure to argue that this was the cost of international ‘sanctions’ on the country in the same period. Both Moss and Moyo would be using a spurious statistic to bolster a political narrative that is far too simple an explanation for a complex and evolving process.

So if you hear this figure again, or any other presented in this sort of way, think twice. More likely than not the statistics will have been conjured up to a suit a predefined narrative. Ask about its source, and whether real field research underpins it. More questioning and critique of such statistics and the narratives that they give rise to is essential to pick apart complex realities from dubious myth making.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

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