However, South Africa, like the rest of the continent are going to miss yet again, the use and application of another important statistical lens, says Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician-General of South Africa  Photo: EPA
However, South Africa, like the rest of the continent are going to miss yet again, the use and application of another important statistical lens, says Pali Lehohla, the former Statistician-General of South Africa Photo: EPA

OPINION: International Comparisons Program report sheds light Covid-19

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published May 28, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG – Philosopher Ian Hacking says, “The quiet statisticians have changed our world; not by discovering new facts or technical developments, but by changing the ways that we reason, experiment and form opinions.” Coronavirus, the pandemic, is the here and now challenge.

However, South Africa, like the rest of the continent are going to miss yet again, the use and application of another importan statistical lens that Hacking’s wisdom refers to.  

The International Comparisons Program (ICP) Report was published last week, following on the 2011 report.  

This release explains the core drivers of the pandemic and the variable levels of success or failure of country responses and experiences.  

The ICP tells us that China is the clear winner economically. They are the biggest economy in the world at Purchasing Power Parity adjusted gross domestic product  of $19.617 trillion (R342trl) compared to the US’s $19.519trln. These two countries constitute a third of the world economy which grew by $40trl from $79trl to $119trl  in 2017.  The share of sub-Saharan Africa is a mere 3.1 percent of the total.

Of relevance to coronavirus and post-corona reconstruction are the comparisons of price level indices on health and education.  

The US - despite a per capita expenditure spend of four times that of China, a price level index expenditure of almost 70 percent more than that of South East Asia on health and almost two-and-half times more on education in comparison to East Asia - the country,  which is almost a quarter of China’s population fared very badly in the treatment of Coronavirus.  

The infections in the US are 20 times and the deaths have been 33 times those of China and still counting. 

The ICP is such an important product and may it in the future include not only measures of expenditure, but those of social capital as well. 

The ICP lens removes tightly pressed policy thumbs from the retina and stuck elbows from policy ears. It sheds searing light to make the blind see and wails a siren that will make even the deaf to hear.

Statisticians have yet again produced the biggest global market research of consumption expenditure to the world into the public domain. 

However, despite its richness in data collected by African statistics offices, the ICP has never been used in South Africa and on the continent more broadly, which I lamented both in 2005 and 2011, when reports were released.

This is with the exception of use in the determination of subsistence allowances that officials are entitled to in their business travels to various capitals of the world and in the evaluation of country drawing rights from the Bretton Woods Institutions. What a pity.

When we commemorated May 25, our Africa day, ICP unfortunately continues to be that metaphorical stone that the builder rejected only to discover when the damage is done, that it is the corner stone of the building –the foundation for industrialization strategy and the basis for the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA).  

So important is the ICP to China, the US and the EU that they are hawk-eyed about the methods and results.  

What is the ICP and what does the 2017 vintage tell us?  

ICP is a global statistical operation held at the same time at five yearly intervals with continuous coverage of limited products annually.  

This attribute of simultaneity of operation across the world renders this to be the largest truly global operation.  It covers a minimum of 600 products that constitute a significant expenditure and or are consumed by a significant proportion of the population.  

Prices are collected for a selection of the goods and services that make up final consumption expenditure and gross capital formation.

These are collected through four main surveys namely household consumption, government consumption, machinery and equipment and construction and civil engineering.   

Against this contextual canvass we can assess the potential and actual differential extent of the coronavirus pandemic on countries and regions.  

Many, including neo-liberals, are now eager to read the obituary for neo-liberalism.  Coronavirus played a crucial part in Saul transforming to Paul. South Africa and Africa have to use evidence to mobilise its way out of this half a century of failed Milton Friedman inspired market fundamentalism agenda.  The quiet statisticians have raised the flag through ICP and policy makers fail to listen at the peril of their nations.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.  Meet him at www.pie.org.za and @palilj01.

BUSINESS REPORT

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