The importance of keeping your head (and your data) in a crisis

On Friday The New York Times published our op-ed (written jointly with Tavneet Suri and Herbert M’cleod) on how implausible claims and misleading presentation of information has made the Ebola crisis worse than it needed to be. Much of the op-ed is based on our report joint with the the World Bank. In our survey we find little evidence of impacts on agriculture, but lots of evidence that household enterprises in urban areas have been hit.

Given our section on agriculture was cut from the op-ed, It is worth explaining in a bit more detail. On September 5th the FAO reported that more than 40 percent of farms in Kailahun were abandoned and raised alarm that planting might be disrupted because of a lack of planting materials. Some news outlets reported that 40 percent of all farms across the country had been abandoned. Ninety percent of farmers in Sierra Leone grow rice, and during September the rice crop is maturing in the fields (having been planted before the outbreak started). What, in this context, does “abandoned” mean? Farmers were not weeding their crop for fear of infection? And why was the FAO worried about lack of planting materials in September, given planting would not take place till late spring/early summer 2015? In our November survey many farmers reported that they had not yet harvested their rice crop (normally harvest starts in late September and early October, although it extends through December). The main reason given was that the rains were continuing. Virtually no one mentioned Ebola. The FAO report was influential in shaping the debate on economic impacts. It was mentioned in the Ministry of Finance and World Bank assessments of the economic impact of Ebola.

It may well be that the reported harvest is lower this year than before. Unfortunately we will probably never know exactly what the impact of Ebola was on agricultural output as it is hard, even in the best of times, to estimate agricultural production in a country where the vast majority of agricultural output is consumed by those who produce it. Our previous, survey- based estimates have been at sharp odds with official figures. But what seems clear is that household nonfarm businesses have been hit harder than agricultural production, yet the emphasis has been on the latter. Is that lack of attention because there is no ministry or agency that has the nonagricultural informal sector as their priority?

For those interested in data on Sierra Leone, the International Growth Center has a useful page of links to nationally representative surveys.