International Monetary Fund Deputy Chief Roberto Rosales announced Monday a plan to encourage more countries to publish their economic and financial data in a timely manner, addressing concerns that essential information in developing countries and emerging markets is inaccurate and out of date. The IMF would require countries that adhere to the less stringent of two IMF data-reporting standards to publish their data according to an advance release calendar, as countries on the more stringent standards do.

Currently, countries seeking access to international capital markets adhere the more stringent Special Data Dissemination Standard (SDDS) while others adhere to the less demanding General Data Dissemination System (GDDS). Most countries in Africa adhere only to the GDDS.

Rosales said his division will propose this reform to the data dissemination initiative to the IMF Board on May 1. This announcement, made at a CGD event, comes on the heels of a rapid increase in demand for more accurate, useful and timelier data. As a prime example, during his keynote remarks, Dr. Yemi Kale, Statistician General of Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics, highlighted some staggering comparisons: in 2005, Nigeria’s Statistics Bureau had 50,000 reports downloaded, just over 26,000 website visitors, and a mere 73 mentions in the media; compare that 2014, when it had more than 2 million reports downloaded, 7.5 million website visitors and more than 6,000 media mentions. Demand for Nigeria’s statistics has skyrocketed over the last decade.

Much of this desire for statistical data comes from international development agencies and foreign investors that require huge amounts of data to make their decisions, as well as from citizens who want to hold their government accountable. Dr. Kale said this puts a lot of pressure on statistical offices to not only meet this demand, but also to raise the bar on the quality and quantity of data they produce.

However, statistical offices in low- and middle-income countries are often under-prioritized and poorly funded. While Dr. Kale believes African statistics have improved significantly, he underscored there are still major problems, especially with tracking the right indicators. For example, education statistics would better reflect learning if net attendance rates, instead of net enrolment rates, were tracked. This would prevent counting a student who enrolls on the first day of school, but is pulled out soon thereafter, as having received an education.

Amanda Glassman, CGD senior fellow, and Morten Jerven, author of “Poor Numbers,” further pointed out how donors’ priorities can lead to a disconnect between data produced and data needed to make informed policy decisions. National statistics offices often rely on donors to fund the collection and production of national statistics. Given funding is at the donor’s discretion, the source of national data is left relatively fragile. Glassman and Jerven both contended that these offices need more independence, more money, and more political support to ensure the most necessary statistics—GDP, unemployment rates, etc.—are given equal weight as data prioritized by donors’ programs.

In the lead up to the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa this summer and the Sustainable Development Goals this fall, it’s likely we’ll hear lots of rhetoric surrounding how to ensure we have more accurate, complete, timely and used data. However, as Glassman noted, it’s not enough to state good intentions, we need to see governments allocate more funds for their statistics systems and leading donors provide better incentives to improve statistical data. 

Watch the full “Statistical Tragedy in Africa?” event here, listen to a podcast with Kale and Jerven here, and read a special issue of the Journal of Development Studies on this topic here (free access until June 30, 2015).