Economic competitiveness numbers cause a stir
When the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) report earlier this month, it caused something of a stir in the South African press. Mauritius, South Africa's tiny island neighbour, had overtaken South Africa as the most competitive country in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mauritius moved up nine places to rank 45th out of 145 countries in the 2013-2014 GCI, but South Africa slipped a place to 53rd.
Its decline was mainly attributed to the education sector as well as labour-market efficiency.
Yet South Africa's drop partly points to the way the GCI favours business interests over labour security.
The flurry of reports on the GCI indicators speaks volumes about the importance given to numbers, particularly those produced by the WEF. Describing itself as nonpartisan and not for profit, the institution has nevertheless been criticised for favouring a particular vision of economic integration synonymous with globalisation and being a "club for the rich".
Its GCI index relies on what it terms the 12 pillars of competitiveness, all quantitative benchmarks.
That numbers have their limitations is not a new idea, and yet in economic circles there is an almost slavish adherence to numbers and what they represent: the ability to measure and compare.
Nevertheless, numbers are conversely often one-dimensional, unable to capture the entire picture.
Take India's indicators: the GCI ranks the country at 102 out of 148 for its health and primary education pillar and a similarly meagre 91 for its higher education and training. Yet in its assessment of "the most problematic factors for doing business" in India, a mere 2.2% of respondents pointed to an inadequately educated workforce.
India also has a long intellectual tradition, with a number of academic institutions highly regarded for their science, engineering and technology, but the numbers hardly suggest this.
The numbers might be talking about overall access to education in India, but then an inadequately educated workforce should feature more prominently in the GCI. All of this simply underscores how statistics fail to provide the whole story.
Increasingly, social scientists and historians are examining the problematic context of numbers and economics. At the Human Economy conference hosted by the University of Pretoria in August, academics from a variety of disciplines descended on South Africa to examine issues that are often obscured by mainstream economic thinking.
In his book Gross Domestic Problem: The Politics Behind the World's Most Powerful Number, Lorenzo Fioramonti, a political scientist at the University of Pretoria, looked at the Cold War backdrop to the invention of gross domestic product (GDP), questioning its relevance and sufficiency in the 21st century.
Fioramonti argues that GDP skews economic outlooks and conceals deeper structural deficiencies and imbalances. This critique is particularly relevant to Africa.
Economic historian Morten Jerven's broader critique of Africa-related numbers in Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It draws attention to the scarcity of reliable data used to derive national income statistics in African countries. Jerven exposes many of the weaknesses of development policies that rest on such statistics.
Statistics and benchmarks such as the GCI or GDP are frequently evoked as neutral facts. Yet often they are politicised or relevant only to particular economic contexts, social concerns are subordinated to and the discourse of economic statistics. This shrouds the bigger social picture, even when these benchmarks touch on relevant issues.
A degree of reflexivity is required if we are to prevent statistics from becoming self-perpetuating realities. – Marina Martin and Tijo Salverda are research fellows with the University of Pretoria's Human Economy programme