Interview with a former prominent chief statistician – Professor Ben Kiregyera, founding Director of the African Centre for Statistics, ECA
We are very glad to receive today for this interview, Professor Ben Kiregyera, former Director of the African Centre for Statistics.
In fact, we are currently conducting a series of short interviews with former prominent chief statisticians on the continent. Through this interview we aim at recognizing and commending their contribution to the statistical development in Africa.
We would also like to hear about their opinion on some current topics based on their experience in the field.
Global Institute for Development Evidence
Question 1: Can you please introduce yourself? (Name, Nationality, Statistical experience, …)
I am Prof. Ben Kiregyera, the founding Director of the African Centre for Statistics at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (2007-2009) and the second winner of the coveted Prof. P.C. Mahalanobis Award for Statistics (2005).
Question 2: How do you see the evolution in the field of official statistics on the continent during the last decades with regard to the production and dissemination of data?I have been involved in statistical development in Africa since 1975 first as a University lecturer and then Professor, then worked as a UN Expert providing technical assistance to a number of countries in Africa, then became a policy maker on statistics when I was appointed the founding Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Uganda Bureau of Statistics and finally I have worked as an international statistics consultant supporting statistical development mainly in Africa focusing on the design and implementation of the National Strategy for the Development of Statistics (NSDS).
Following attainment of independence mainly in 1960s, African countries established National Statistics Offices (NSOs) to spearhead and coordinate the production of official statistics to meet data needs mainly for planning and decision-making purposes.
In many Anglophone countries, heads of NSOs were called Government Statisticians. In the 1970s, there was precipitous decline in statistical production when African economies atrophied following oil crisis early in the 1970s and the situation was made worse by structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s which among other things aimed to cut down the size of government. However, with assistance of a number of development partners, many African countries received different forms of assistance to build capacity and infrastructure for statistics production.
Much of this assistance was delivered through a number of defining statistical programmes including: African Census Programme, African Household Survey Capability Programme, National Accounts Capability Programme, Statistical Training Programme for Africa and Statistical Development Programme for Africa. Statistical development in 1990s rallied around the Addis Ababa Plan of Action for Statistical Development in Africa in the 1990s (endorsed by African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development in 1990).
In 2000s, statistical development was given impetus by: (a) demand for results-based management; (b) the strengthening of Statistics Units at pan African institutions; (c) establishment of the Statistical Commission for Africa; (d) implementation of various statistical development initiatives including, inter alia: initiative on the 2010 round of population and housing census, International Comparison Programme for Africa, Harmonized Consumer Price Index, Civil Registration and Vital Statistics, Africa Symposium on Statistical Development, Action Plan for Africa of the Global Strategy for Improving Agricultural and Rural Statistics, gender statistics, infrastructure statistics, African Group on Statistical Training and Human Resources and The African Information Highway.
These initiatives have led to improvements in the scope, quantity, quality and timeliness in meeting data demand especially for national, regional, continental and global development agendas. Slowly but surely, a data culture is being built in Africa and this is becoming a driver for further improvements in statistical production.
Lastly, the statistical systems in Africa have in recent years been addressing contemporary issues which are now powering the data revolution in the world – issues such as new data ecosystems, data innovations including exploitation of new data sources e.g. Big Data, modernization and transformation of National Statistical Systems, new partnerships for development data, etc.
Question 3: The reliability of data on the continent remains a challenge. Some organizations or intellectuals even question the quality of official statistics. How is this situation evolving?
It is true that over the years, the issue of reliability of African development has been a concern not only to data users but also to data producers. However, this issue has been blown out of proportion by Afro-statistical pessimists who do not want to hear about “Africa is rising” according to current economic statistics.
At the height of this controversy, both the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the UN Economic Commission (UNECA) undertook studies to establish the reliability of African development data. The study by the using data in her database and reported in 2013 showed that while there still remain some data challenges, most African countries have smooth time series data for GDP for the last eleven years and that there are few gaps in GDP, at least at the aggregated level.
On its part, the AfDB undertook a continent-wide survey in 2013 the results of which were used in a situational analysis of the reliability of economic statistics in Africa focusing on GDP measurement. AfDB concluded that, “Overall, the situation with regard to GDP estimates in Africa is not nearly as bad as has recently been suggested. Nevertheless, the survey points out some areas of weakness which must be addressed. These include both stricter adherence to SNA guidelines and, in particular, the adoption of a regular program of surveys of households, enterprises, and agriculture”.
The initiatives in 2 above have led to further improvements in the reliability and usability of African development data.
Question 4: What are some key examples of the impact or contribution of statistics to good governance in Africa?
Good governance is about setting the right direction; achievement of effectiveness and efficiency in the formulation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, plans and programmes; and enhancing accountability for resources and their use.
Examples abound in Africa on the impact of statistics on all the above aspects of good governance. As mentioned earlier, NSOs were established to provide statistics as evidence for policy and planning purposes for emerging states in Africa. This role of statistics has been enhanced through time, hence the umbilical code between NSOs and Ministries responsible for planning in African countries. Statistics have also played and continue to play a key role in implementation, monitoring and evaluation of development programmes;
Indeed, statistics has become a core component of the monitoring and evaluation frameworks in development processes in all African countries. It is also the case that statistics continue to provide the evidence needed to improve decision-making, document results, and heighten public accountability.
Question 5: There are many stakeholders in the field of strengthening statistical capacity on the continent; what mechanism should be put in place for better collaboration?
Mechanisms which can be put in place for better collaboration among stakeholders in statistical development in Africa include:
a) Conference of African Planners, Statisticians and Demographers: There is a need for a continental forum that brings together data users and producers to foster dialogue between the two stakeholder groups in statistical development at continental level. Fortunately, there is precedent for this mechanism. When the UNECA was established in 1958, statistics was one of its first programmes. The Conference of African Statisticians was established as a technical committee of the Commission in 1959. This conference was later expanded to become the Joint Conference of African Planners, Statisticians and Demographers in 1979. This conference could be revived to enable dialogue between data users and producers to take place at continental level.
b) National data user-producer forum: At national level, there is a need to establish a national data user-producer forum (Committee) to foster dialogue and oversee national statistical development. A few African countries have not only established such mechanism but have even included it in their national Statistics Acts. For instance, Nigeria has included a National Consultative Committee on Statistics (user-producer committee) in her 2007 Statistics Act.\
c) Donor forum on statistics: In many countries, donor assistance for statistics has been ad hoc and piecemeal. As a result, this assistance has had limited impact on the development of statistics in many African countries. Mechanisms like “basket funding” have been established in a few African countries to better coordinate donor assistance for statistics. Rwanda and a few other countries have used this mechanism to great effect.
Your final word, please:
I wish to congratulate the African Centre for Statistics for sustaining this platform for sharing experience and best practice in statistical development in Africa since 2007.
NB: This interview was conducted in February 2021.