The data-policy gap must be closed

Africa’s national statistical systems are in dire need of modernisation, with capacity building and skills development critical to successful reform, speakers at a plenary panel on statistics asserted.


This article is sponsored by UN ECA

As the world moves towards greater use of big data, as part of a digital revolution taking place across the world, Africa lags behind, despite the importance of national statistics to policymaking and development. 

“Every statistician should be prepared for change as we automate the way we do things,” said Samuel Annim, Government Statistician from the Ghana Statistical Service. 

He said it was also important for policymakers to understand the context and reality behind the numbers produced by their national offices. 

But he also asked to what extent governments are actually using the data produced by their own national offices to drive evidence-based policymaking. “Are national statistics offices pushing for this?” he asked.

He suggested that governments need to be more proactive about asking for specific data that enables them to improve policy. 

Officials need to think beyond the scope of what they produce to understand how numbers can transform lives. “We need to give numbers a human face.” 

Nemera Gebeyehu, Ethiopia’s Minister of State for Planning and Development, said government agencies are limited by capacity and skills issues. 

“What kind of technology capability is in place across different government bodies in data collection, production and dissemination? What are the skills sets required and infrastructure to be able to harness tech innovations?” he asked. 

He also asked how comprehensive existing systems are. “On the SDGs, our model is not to leave anyone behind. So we require statistics to be done at a very micro level. But is this happening?” 

Measuring the SDGs requires a new set of indicators and requires producing information for many different users in different contexts. 

Stephen Chacha, Director of the Africa Hub, Development Initiatives, said current systems only provide 50% of what is needed to support and measure the SDGs, highlighting broader data gaps in most countries. 

Unless Africa’s systems are modernised, it will be hard to take advantage of the technology revolution. “We tend to talk about AI as if it exists in a vacuum. But you cannot just plug frontier technology into an outdated system.”

Chacha said only one percent of data centres globally are in Africa and most are concentrated in just a few countries.  

Speakers also raised concerns about fragmentation of information, and problems with the interoperability of systems. 

Concerns were also expressed about data sovereignty and skills gaps, both technical and analytical. Most skills exist in the private sector and national offices cannot afford them.