False Accounting as Formalizing Practices: The Computation of Macroeconomic Aggregates in African Countries since Structural Adjustment

Boris Samuel (2021)

History of Political Economy, 53 (S1), pp. 81-110.

Abstract. This article studies the inference procedures used to compute the macroeconomic indicators feeding into the International Monetary Fund’s monitoring and surveillance in Africa since the structural adjustment. In 2005, the IMF launched a procedure to denounce a Mauritanian “misreporting” over a twelve-year period. The article wonders how could the statistical fiction be validated by the IMF economists, and to what extent they took part in Mauritanian data production. The article argues that the auditorauditee relation places less importance on the veracity and the pertinence of numbers than on the formal conformity of data and economic programs with expectations of the IMF bureaucracy. For programs and statistics to be considered consistent, tables of estimates must be filled out, even when data are missing, and the economic diagnosis must comply with monetarist-dominant orientations. By analyzing the financial programming tool, the article shows that the treatment of basic national accounting identities neglects variables like household consumption even when alternative methods exist. Changes in methods may be discarded to ensure the legibility of economic works over the years. The article therefore argues that the IMF and countries coproduce false accounts, whereby inferences of macroeconomic estimates serve other institutional functions inside the IMF besides veracity.

Extract: “2.2. Economic Calculation as Formalizing Practices
Specialists in the sociology and epistemology of data production would say that statistics are always partly fictional because their elaboration implies necessarily subjective processes of valuing, categorizing, or, in accounting, finding ways to balance the identities (Bowker and Star 1999; Thévenot 2016). Following Alain Desrosières (2001), the practices of users and producers of statistics can be described as an “unconscious intermingling” of four types of attitudes to reality, of which two are of interest here. One type involves a “pragmatic” conception of realism: a willingness to admit reliance on subjective or even arbitrary choices— like the way to balance the accounts in double-entry bookkeeping or to use one among many possible forecasting techniques—and the validation and adjustment of their methods occur through the repetition of tests of reality.” (p. 86)

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