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While the South Africa Minister of Finance was the primary speaker at the Brookings Institution’s April 17 event on “Inequality and Inclusive Growth in Africa”, Shanta Devarajan, the Chief Economist for Africa at the World Bank and Homi Kharas, the Deputy Director of the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution were also present.  While Mr. Kharas made some very insightful comments I was thoroughly displeased my Mr. Devarajan’s approach (although to be fair, the Finance Minister took up the vast majority of the time so I do not have to much material to evaluate the others).

Following Minister Gordhan’s remarks, Homi Kharas posed some very concerning questions about Africa’s growth.  While the statistics point to an impressive rate of overall growth, the statistics appear to be equally clear that most of the benefits are not accruing to the masses.   Mr. Devarajan, who was exceedingly fond of data, highlighted Gabon’s relatively high per capita income (in the African context) and juxtaposed it with a low level of development, stating that it has the lowest child immunization rate in all of Africa.

Although Minister Gordhan indicated the Africa would replace Asia as a global economic center in 20 – 30 years. Mr. Kharas sounded a note of caution, saying that rapid economic growth in Africa was not accompanied by improvements in development indicators.  Kharas stressed obstacles in providing economic support to women, youth, and skilled labor as being leading reasons for Africa’s development woes despite growth.  He did not consider governance, but perhaps that was in deference to Devarajan, who hammered away on Africa’s poor governance.  I found Kharas’ emphasis on women and the benefits that come from two income households to be particularly compelling.  From my own experience it certainly seems plausible that African women, who remain largely engaged in the informal sector, have not joined the global economy in the same way that female factory workers in Asia have.

I left the event wishing that someone other than Shanta Devarajan was the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa.  He seemed very knowledgeable and he was a veritable fountain of statistics (he must have just read something on Tanzania, because he disproportionately referenced that country), but in my mind, that was his downfall.

While I appreciate the willingness of someone in authority to make critical statements, he followed his array of statistics on countries like Tanzania, Senegal, Chad, and Gabon with the refreshingly blunt comment that the data indicates ‘fundamental failures of governance,’ his numbers driven mentality played right into the hands of Mr. Kharas’ remarks.  Data is important and may not lie, but it can certainly be manipulated.  In the African context, where institutional capacity is very limited, I am extremely skeptical of the ability to accurately measure government activity, particularly in rural areas.  I am also doubtful that as a general principle, quantitative measures are well suited to tell a qualitative story.

Although I found it distasteful that Devarajan sprouted of an array of statistics, attributed them to bad governance, and offered little to no analysis, it was a comment on cell phones that most provoked my ire.  There seems to be a sense that cell phones are the panacea to all of Africa’s ills.  Development officials in cushy offices believe that the simple possession of a cell phone can lift an uneducated, rural peasant eeking out an existence, to a more stable, financially secure life.

Devarajan fell squarely in this camp saying that farmers in Niger (I couldn’t see any particular reason why he referenced that country) have benefitted tremendously from cell phone possession.  Having lived in Niger for several years, it almost seemed that the comment was designed to provoke me.  A cell phone may be useful, but it cannot compensate for a lack of roads, water, or access to farming implements.  There are many things that can help a farmer more than a cell phone.

Hopefully the World Bank will also increasingly consider trends and not reduce everyone to a statistic.