Data gaps hampering Africa’s development agenda

Joseph Maina

November 28, 2022

Data and socioeconomic development go hand in hand. Very little development can be sustainably realized in the absence of credible, timely and relevant data to guide in effective decision making and governance. Without data, governments’ development policies are misdirected and exclude the most vulnerable groups and individuals.

This is according to a working paper commissioned by Paris21 and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. It emphasizes that “data are central to inclusive and effective governance. You need to know where you are starting from, what you are aiming at, and whether you are getting there in the most efficient manner.”

Yet, data gaps continue to haunt most countries in Africa. If ignored such gaps could hamper key development objectives at national and regional levels. As was noted in The Africa Data Revolution Report 2016,  significant deficits remain within the continent’s data ecosystems.

“If Africa is to harness the full transformative power of the on-going data revolution, significant investment will need to be made in human resources, technological capabilities, platforms and tools, and in establishing effective governance frameworks related to the production, processing, protection, ownership, quality, openness, timeliness, relevance, accessibility, harmonization, interoperability and use of different types of data, regardless of who produces or owns them,” the report stated.

To illustrate, the report asserts that for many African countries there remains inadequate poverty data. It adds that statistical systems at the national level in many African countries have had to contend with inadequate financial, human, technical and infrastructural capacities. There are also challenges of lack of financial autonomy, coordination and willingness to share data.

“There are still too many gaps in what and who is counted in Africa, which means that some people, issues and regions remain invisible to official statistics and the national statistical community.”

The executive director of the Alliance for Science, Dr Sheila Ochugboju, has come face to face with the scourge of data gaps while serving in an advisory capacity in one African country. She explained her frustrations thus: “The data gaps, especially in agriculture, were so stunning that one would even wonder what was the basis for decision making. For instance, we didn’t have the figures for how much maize was being produced, or even what challenges the farmers were facing. Most of the work we did was based on guestimates! We figured that we needed to put systems in place to capture the data, because we couldn’t work out solutions without the data.”

In their study titled, “‘For good measure’: data gaps in a big data world”, authors Sarah Giest and Annemarie Samuels define data gaps as data for particular elements or social groups that are knowingly or unknowingly missing when policy is made on the basis of large datasets. They note that data gaps may occur either when a part of the necessary data for policymaking is absent or when it is present but underused or of low quality.

“Importantly, the gap may be either known or unknown. In each case, the data gap may lead to an incomplete picture for policymaking,” notes the study.

The issue of data gaps has featured in various thematic areas of the COP27 held in November 2022 in Egypt. The UN has observed in the past that, while climate change is an increasing threat to Africa, the limited uptake and use of climate information services in development planning and practice in Africa is due in part to the paucity of reliable and timely climate information.

At a panel convened for finance and meteorological stakeholders during COP27, it emerged that weather and climate data is essential for both finance ministries and the climate-science community to model the future, assess physical risks, and formulate climate strategies and policies.

“Science based solutions and data are more important than ever. The quality of climate analysis depends on the data. Unfortunately, while we have come a long way to expand and improve weather observations there are currently gaps in weather data,” said Bo Li, Deputy Managing Director, International Monetary Fund.

Some of the data gaps relate to lack of capacity to generate data. For example, the State of the Climate in Africa 2019 noted that despite Africa covering a fifth of the world’s total land area, the continent has the least developed land-based observation network  that is in a deteriorating state, amounting to only one eighth of the minimum density required by WMO, with only 22% of stations fully meeting Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) reporting requirements.

Experts have pointed to gaps in the availability of meteorological data at regional levels within the continent. A case in point is sub-Saharan Africa.

Although Africa is considered a vulnerability ‘hot spot’ for climate variability and change impacts, the gaps in the data availability hinder detailed assessments of the ongoing climate change according to  a study that assessed the opportunities and challenges for climate risk assessment and management in sub-Saharan Africa.

Similar challenges have been experienced with health data. For example, experts say that by addressing data gaps and strengthening health systems, sub-Saharan Africa could substantially reduce the rapidly rising burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

In the case of Kenya, a health ministry official explained that NCDs are generally neglected because of data gaps, and that good quality data would help attract the necessary funds needed to eradicate NCDs.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore fundamental data gaps in Africa, notably in relation to health and civil registration. Poor data coverage of health facilities and health outcomes in Africa adversely affects the crucial timely production of statistics during health emergencies, notes the Paris21 and Mo Ibrahim Foundation Report, and this makes response and recovery efforts more difficult.

Data gaps in Africa’s healthcare systems have been seen to imperil the delivery of quality healthcare in line with the SDG 3 that envisages healthy lives and well-being for all at all ages. Experts say that routinely collected health service data, has often been seen to have quality issues that include missing values and errors in data entry and computation. This has a ripple effect on the eventual analysis, dissemination and use.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change notes that there have been critical data gaps and inconsistencies in reporting related to testing, case numbers and mortality records since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these have had an impact on the ability of African governments to effectively respond to the crisis and craft the most effective policies for managing it.