Africa-China – How Unreliable Data Skews the Debate



7 MAY 2013

Note: Read the original of this report on the ThinkAfricaPress site.

Following the launch of a new China-Africa aid database, many different professions will draw on the findings. However, its unreliable sources may dangerously influence public opinion.

‘Publish or perish’ runs the mantra of the research industry, putting its harried worker bees under constant pressure to issue material. The development industry is similarly quick on the draw, with Morten Jerven recalling how World Bank staffers have published GDP figures on African economies despite having little or no source data, on the basis that it was better to have some data rather than none.

But as any hypochondriac scanning the internet will tell you, a little information is a dangerous thing. And so it proves with the new China-Africa aid database, AidData.

The resource, which took 18 months to compile, sought to find and classify all Chinese development finance to Africa from 2001 to 2011, using a media-based data collection methodology.

But soon after it was published, the human encyclopaedia of all things Sino-African – Deborah Brautigam – slammed it, saying the numbers were ‘way off’ and riddled with ‘mega errors’.

She warned of the dangers of rushing to publish China information gleaned from public sources, and without clear verification processes: “Data-driven researchers won’t wait around to have someone clean the data. They’ll start using it and publishing with it and setting these numbers into stone.”

Fanning the flames

Although the AidData researchers included notice of the limitations of the data set and its constantly-evolving nature, the media seized upon top-line figures like hungry jackals.

Yahoo News announced that $75 billion of ‘previously secret’ Chinese aid had now been revealed (the ‘secrecy’ was played up in many other media headlines about the story).

But that figure is dubious, since nearly half the cases in the dataset had only one source, with no ‘triangulation’ or verification of data against other sources. And obviously, none of this aid was ‘secret’ since it was all based on media reports.

The debate over AidData is similar to that surrounding the Land Matrix database launched last year. Responding to fears of ‘land grabs’ – especially in Africa – the coalition of researchers aimed to document over a thousand land deals since 2000, spanning 58million hectares of land.

While it was based on the output of dozens of research bodies and NGOs, it was littered with errors and flawed data – some of which was, again, based on single media reports – overstating the extent of Chinese land investment in Africa, which in turn fed the flames of the ‘China is colonising Africa’ narrative.

Link to the full article:


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