Black holes in African trade data
Collating and analysing African trade data is an exercise fraught with difficulties. In many instances this data is not available from its primary source, and this leads to the use of so-called mirror data or data assessed by examining the mirror of the trade partner data. While this is a very good proxy, it does lend itself to some interpretational problems (such as when neither partner reports).
In addition, there are many other issues that one encounters such as transhipment of goods across boundaries, data classification differences, whether or not the costs of transport and associated costs are included in the import values, and the sensitivities associated with some goods that lead to a country not reporting the full picture (South African gold trade, for example). These difficulties persist despite organisations, such as the International Trade Centre (ITC), making great strides in improving data availability and accuracy.
This is an important issue as politicians and trade officials and practitioners rely upon accurate data for sound policy-making outcomes. The problem is that in examining trade data we find numerous examples of where data seems to disappear into a ‘black hole’. Often, as in seemingly unnatural phenomena, a logical explanation can be found but, conversely, at other times no apparently logical explanation offers itself.
The objective of this paper is to peruse African trade data and explore some of its mysteries. We appreciate that a case cannot be proved or disproved by offering examples, but we consider that the examples provided at least help to explain some of the seemingly contradictory findings from trade data. The emphasis is on intra-African trade data.
Overall, African trade data now reconciles relatively well at the big-picture level of aggregate country reporting when either direct or mirror data is used. Nevertheless, some glaring gaps remain. This applies especially to the commodity analysis, and further investigation shows that these two aspects of intra-country and commodity problems are often interrelated. However, the situation is improving, and examples of this include the reporting by South Africa of its intra-Southern African Customs Union (SACU) trade data since 2010.
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