Toward the beginning of every month, the White House, the Federal Reserve, Capitol Hill, Wall Street and major media outlets wait anxiously for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to release its employment report. The statistics, based on household and employer surveys, are our economy’s vital signs, closely monitored to see whether American workers and private firms are doing well or fading fast. The data inform everything from unemployment benefits and job training programs to interest rates, employer tax breaks, and investment portfolios.
The figures are also leading indicators of political fortunes. Too many months of rising unemployment spells trouble for incumbents because voters base judgments about politicians’ performance on both their own personal job security and their understanding, as filtered through the media, of how the nation as a whole is doing.
African citizen, investors, and policymakers have no such information. Seriously. None. In fact, in almost all African countries, we know more about whether people have had sex in the past month than we know about whether they’ve had a job.
A world away from the wealth of statistics available to advanced economics, African governments are profoundly impoverished, starved for data. Virtually no African government generates reliable, representative, reasonably current information about the size of the labor force, the number of people employed, or the number seeking jobs. In many cases, the only available information dates from the most recent census, and captures only the small fraction of productivity that occurs in the formal sector. If you want to see for yourself, look at this map of available data maintained by the International Labor Organization. The most basic employment data for the entire continent of Africa: n/a.
This massive problem can be solved. For just the past year, the world has had a modern, comprehensive definition of work and classifications of different types of productive activity, endorsed by the International Conference of Labor Statisticians. The new definition encompasses a broad array of productive activities, going well beyond the narrow formal employment arrangements. Happily, this updated way to measure work can be used in African and other contexts where relatively few workers are employed in enterprises recognized by government authorities, and most—particularly most women—are working in the informal economy, or in unpaid activities that produce goods or services within their own home or others’.
Not only is the right definition in place, but there’s a way to collect the data. While frequent labor force surveys may remain a distant dream, most African countries conduct nationally representative household surveys every five years or so. As the World Bank’s Kathleen Beegle and others have noted, questions based on the new definition could be developed for those surveys, capturing the essential information to describe in detail what the labor force looks like: who’s working, who’s not, what they’re doing.
Yes, it would take a combination of extra money and intensive technical support, plus coordination among the various international agencies that help fund and design household surveys. It would also take a genuine commitment by National Statistical Offices, and resources to help them skill-up to measure better. This will sound like a pretty familiar to-do list if you’ve been paying attention to the “data revolution” conversation.
But it’s not about just any old data for its own sake. The payoff in this case would be enormous and immediate: critically important information for economic policymaking, and a baseline measure against which future progress can be assessed. Moreover, by generating comprehensive information about the productivity of both men and women using methods that are not tainted by gender bias, it would be one of the most powerful ways imaginable to close the gender data gap.
The absence of crucial economic data in Africa isn’t a new problem, but with the help of data revolutionaries, can’t we find some new ways to solve it?