By Francis Kokutse, in Accra, Ghana
Francis Kokutse is a journalist based in Accra and writes for Associated Press (AP), University World News, as well as Science and Development.Net. He was a Staff Writer of African Concord and Africa Economic Digest in London, UK.
Looks like across Africa, data has not been taken seriously because it is just seen as a word. It is more than that. Liberia’s former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf nailed it on the head when she said Africa has not been serious with data gathering and production. For this reason, she said poor data gathering and effective use has hindered the continent’s ability to effectively monitor progress, identify gaps, and take corrective action when needed.
“Despite the importance of data, Africa has long faced significant challenges in accessing and utilising timely data. In many cases, the lack of timely data has led to the implementation of ineffective policies, the misallocation of resources, and the perpetuation of inequalities,” Johnson-Sirleaf said.
She is not the only person that has identified this gap. Way back in 2018, Abel Alfred Kinyondo of the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Riccardo Pelizzo of Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, produced a paper in which they said, among other things that, “one of the problems that scholars encounter when conducting research is that data from Africa are poor. Indeed, they either do not exist in a complete sense or they are not of good quality in the sense of lacking validity and reliability.”
They used various sources of available data on corruption and tourism and concluded “that lack of quality data in Africa, not only limits the continent’s ability to generate a pertinent body of knowledge, but also prevents analysts from generating the evidence that policy makers need to make proper decisions in influencing the development of the continent.”
That is why, President Johnson-Sirleaf said “with the continent experiencing significant economic growth and development, data has become an essential tool for policymakers and development practitioners seeking to track progress, identify areas for intervention, and make informed decisions that can impact the lives of millions of people.”
She mentioned Africa’s biggest challenge regarding timely data as the lack of infrastructure and resources to collect and analyse data promptly, adding that, “many countries on the continent lack the necessary tools and expertise to collect, manage, and analyse data effectively. This has led to data availability delays and serious consequences for policymakers and practitioners.”
In addition, President Johnson-Sirleaf said, “the continent is also facing the lack of a culture of data-driven decision-making.
“Instead, many African policymakers and practitioners still rely on intuition, anecdotal evidence, and personal experience to make decisions. The misalignment between policies and actual needs has resulted in suboptimal outcomes,” she added.
In her view, despite these challenges, progress is being made in many areas, stating that, “there is increasing recognition of the importance of data in the context of African development, and many governments and organisations are investing in building the necessary infrastructure and capacity to collect and analyse data on time.”
President Johnson-Sirleaf is worried that data adequacy in Africa is not totally positive, stating that, there have been “too many national and regional research and analytical institutions, the so-called Think Tanks, that continue to face decline in too many of our countries.” She noted that there were many African countries, particularly those of low capacity, that rely almost exclusively on the work of the Bretton Woods institutions to provide the data which is required for policy action.
“Too often the need for urgency in data leads to back of the envelope calculations for the statistics required for serious discussion on a country’s performance and the policy decisions and actions required for the achievement of national goals,” she added.
The World Bank also joined the chorus and called for the strengthening of national data systems, in order to realise the full potential of the data revolution to transform the lives of poor people.
According to the World Development Report of 2021, from information gathered in household surveys to pixels captured by satellite images, data can inform policies and spur economic activity, serving as a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty.
The report said more data is available today than ever before, yet its value is largely untapped, adding that data is also a double-edged sword, requiring a social contract that builds trust by protecting people against misuse and harm, and works toward equal access and representation.
Former World Bank Group President, David Malpass, has also said, “data offer tremendous potential to create value by improving programmes and policies, driving economies and empowering citizens. The perspective of poor people has largely been absent from the global debate on data governance and urgently needs to be heard.”
Malpass said, “lower-income countries are too often disadvantaged due to a lack of institutions, decision-making autonomy, and financial resources, all of which hold back their effective implementation and effectiveness of data systems and governance frameworks. International cooperation is needed to harmonise regulations and coordinate policies so that the value of data is harnessed to benefit all, and to inform efforts toward a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery.
It must be pointed out that data collected for public or commercial purposes, by traditional or modern methods, is used, combined, and reused in ways that deliver benefits to more people and provide information with greater accuracy.
Researchers have shown that better data are enhancing governments’ abilities to set priorities and target resources more efficiently. In Kenya, for example, social media, mobile phone data, and digitised official reports of traffic accidents in Nairobi, identified the most dangerous roads, leading to road safety improvements to save lives.
They said the private sector is using data to power platform-based businesses that boost economic growth and generate international trade in services. In Haiti, technology has helped mango farmers track their produce through to final sale, eliminating many intermediaries, letting them keep more of their profits.
“Combining data from multiple sources can advance evidence-based policy making through more precise and timely statistics,” said World Bank Group Chief Economist, Carmen Reinhart. “The adverse effects of COVID-19 have been felt unequally, and innovative uses of data offer new opportunities to understand its spread, assess policies to mitigate it, and target government resources to the people most in need.”
Other studies have also shown that COVID-19 has dramatically highlighted opportunities and challenges associated with newfound uses of data. Consequently, countries have repurposed mobile phone data to monitor the virus — but have had to provide protection against harmful misuse of such data.
Unfortunately, the abrupt shift to virtual work has exposed a digital divide between those with access to technology and those without, serving as a reminder of the need to work toward equitable access to mobile phones and the internet for the poor and for low-income countries. Virus containment has hindered basic data collection in numerous countries, underscoring the need for investments in infrastructure, data systems and statistical capacity.
It has also become clear that the more data is used, the greater the potential for misuse. Therefore, there is the need for careful design of regulations to strengthen cybersecurity and protect personal data in order not to engender trust. In a global survey of 80 countries, only 40 percent had provisions for best-practice data regulations, including fewer than one-third of low-income countries, although many are now beginning to adopt them.
For this reason, researchers say, what needs to be done is to improve representation in, and access to data for marginalised people as a priority. This is because digital connectivity is low in sub-Saharan Africa, and modern infrastructure in low-income countries for exchanging, storing, and processing data is negligible. Now that President Johnson-Sirleaf has added her voice, it is hoped that African leaders will pay particular attention to data gathering, preservation and how to put it to good use to benefit the continent.
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