by Maria Bach
The Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which forms part of a country’s national accounts, is the most dominantly used measure to gauge the health of an economy. However, the history of national accounting, and its effects on our economies, have been informed by the experiences of the Global North, with academic attention limited to the form of national accounting developed in North America in the 1930s and 40s (Vanoli, 2005; Hirschman, 2016), despite a longer and more diverse history.
I aim to break new ground in the history of national accounting by examining understudied regions with diverse histories and contexts distinct from the Global North. Studying such instances from the Global South offers further insight into measurement methods, how they reflect and shape our reality, and the issue of what’s worth counting is not ahistorical or apolitical. While there is growing literature exploring links between accounting and imperial processes, there is much less on how economists from the Global South accounted their own economies. In this blog post, I present some initial findings from the national accounts of Nigeria published in 1962 by a Nigerian economist, Pius Okigbo.
Pius Okigbo, the economic advisor
Born in 1924 under British rule in Nigeria, Okigbo pursued degrees in economics with the aim of contributing to the betterment of the African subcontinent. After attending elite schools in Nigeria, he became the first African to receive an MA and PhD in Economics from Northwestern University, followed by a post-doctorate at Oxford University. Upon returning to Nigeria, Okigbo served as the economic advisor to the Prime Minister in the newly-formed Federal Government of Nigeria. In 1962, just two years after Nigeria’s independence, he published his Nigerian National Accounts. According to him, new estimates were necessary as the previous estimates made by Europeans were inadequate (Okigbo, 1962, p. 285).
Okigbo opposed both imperialist regimes and the “development regimes” advocated by institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank after the formal end of colonialism. He argued that the unbalanced agricultural and industrial development in imperial territories in West Africa could be traced back to imperialist factors, such as the slave-trade, the forced introduction of a monetary system, and the raw material interests of foreign monopolies. He criticised the strong focus on food programmes in these development schemes, which, according to him, merely propped up food production rather than spur investment in manufacturing programs and agricultural inputs. Instead, Okigbo called for policies that would enhance domestic production and managerial skills (Okigbo, 1957).
In this way, Okigbo’s National Accounts contributed to a debate on national accounting that otherwise conformed to standardised practice set in the context and experiences of the Global North. The national accounting framework developed in the US in the 1930s quickly spread worldwide (Bos, 2006). But even so, by the end of the colonial period in the 1940s, officials and intellectuals began questioning whether international national accounting standards could apply to the Global South. Indeed, Simon Kuznet and Richard Stone – credited with development of the National Accounting System – doubted that their method, conceptualised for the “advanced” economies, would apply universally (Morgan, 2009, p. 10). Okigbo’s contributions showed how national income accounting could be adapted to the Nigerian context, without the need for expertise from the Global North.
How and what was counted
In the 1960s, Okigbo conducted surveys and collected data to estimate Nigeria’s GDP for the years from 1950 to 1957. He estimated national income using both the production and expenditure approach. From the production side, he included agriculture, livestock, fishing, forest products, mining and oil exploration, manufacturing and public utilities, communications, building and civil engineering, ownership of buildings, transport, crafts, missions, government, marketing boards, banking, insurance and the professions, domestic services, miscellaneous services, land development and distribution, residual error, etc. In the expenditure estimate, he included consumer expenditure, government expenditure on goods and services, gross fixed investment in Nigeria, increase in marketing boards’ stocks, net exports of goods and services, and net income from abroad (Okigbo, 1962, pp. 289–291).
Okigbo felt the need to recalculate the Nigeria national account and build a time series, because earlier estimates were problematic. The major problem, according to Okigbo, with the earlier estimates was the treatment of the non-monetary or intra-household activities. Okigbo particularly challenged A.R. Prest’s and I.G. Stewart’s estimate, who has been appointed by the colonial office in 1950 to produce a national account for Nigeria. They thought it important to include figures for what they referred to as ‘intra-household activity’ (Okigbo, 1962, p. 294). They must, wrote Prest and Stewart, “try to discover the most appropriate forms for a West African economy emerging from primitive forms of economic life” (Prest and Stewart, 1953, p. 6). Nigeria’s national account then, as a “primitive economy,” should include “the output of drummers, beggars, praisers and housewives and […] prostitutes” (Okigbo, 1962, p. 294). Okigbo disagreed and excluded these figures from his estimate, “to keep subjective estimates and imputations to a minimum” (Okigbo, 1962, p. 294).
Prest and Stewart had also included transfer payments, such as “purchase of old houses and gifts to beggars,” which were generally excluded from national accounts (Prest and Stewart, 1953; Okigbo, 1962, p. 296). They suggested these payments were a social necessity and therefore should be included in the national account. Okigbo’s argued that “the so-called ‘social necessity’ [was] no stronger and no more necessary in Nigeria than elsewhere and that the Nigerian economy did not offer any special reason either in 1950 or 1960 for the position taken by Prest” (Okigbo, 1962, p. 296). Okigbo also disagreed with Prest and Stewart’s definition of capital goods. Prest and Stewart included bikes and personal cars in their capital figure, which Okigbo argued could be defined as durable consumer goods – and often were in “more mature economies” (Okigbo, 1962, p. 297). Okigbo felt the need to harmonise the method to facilitate comparisons between Nigeria and other countries.
Okigbo also critiqued Prest and Stewart’s method of estimating agricultural prices. As an example of Prest and Stewart’s conceptual limitations, Okigbo specified that they had treated “all firewood as part of the gross domestic product” (Okigbo, 1962, p. 296) even though it was simply collected, not bought, in rural areas. He therefore treated rural firewood as a free good, while only counting urban consumption of firewood.
Similar to a contemporary economist, P.T. Bauer, Okigbo argued that the Nigerian national account needed to include peasant investment, which was missing from earlier estimates of the Nigerian economy (Bauer, 1955; Okigbo, 1962, p. 303). By neglecting the investments in “the establishment, extension, and improvement of agricultural holdings, whether for subsistence or cash crops,” he wrote, the earlier national accounts “neglect[ed] all capital formation in the nonmonetary sector” (Bauer, 1955, p. 410). As this sector made up a large proportion of the Nigerian economy, the figures were misleading. Okigbo thus included what he labeled “peasant investment” (Okigbo, 1962, p. 303), which “[took] the form of new seedlings, clearing and preparing new land, purchase of new farm implements, and inventory accumulation” (Okigbo, 1962, p. 303). In contrast to Okigbo’s argument against including beggars and housewives etc., Okigbo argued for including the peasant’s investments in these assets, because they yielded income.
My case study exposes the specific socio-economic and political context within which this measurement took place. We show how counting necessarily happened on the local level, making the figures produced specific to a country’s context. At the same, however, we find that it also happened on the international level. By bringing Okigbo’s estimate into the global discussion around national accounting standards, we challenge the tendency to continuously emphasise how specific and different the Global South realities are from the Global North.
Shifting the focus to economists from the Global South, rather than their colonisers, offers room to new perspectives on what national accounting did for the Global South and what was worth accounting for. Studies that examine the imperial practises of counting their foreign territories have uncovered how national accounting was yet another tool to govern, control and suppress the populations of the Global South. My study shows the contrary: economists from the Global South used national accounting as an emancipatory tool. Okigbo wanted to count the Nigerian economy the way he saw fit, not the way the British had done before. Nigeria could, argued Okigbo, become its own nation on the world stage with a comparable GDP figure.
Bauer, P.T. (1955) ‘The Economic Development of Nigeria’, Journal of Political Economy, 63(5), pp. 398–411.
Bos, F. (2006) ‘A History of National Accounting’, The Economic History Review, 59(4), pp. 872–873.
Davie, S. (2007) ‘A colonial “social experiment”: Accounting and a communal system in British-ruled Fiji’, Accounting Forum, 31(3), pp. 255–276.
Davie, S.S. and McLean, T. (2017) ‘Accounting, cultural hybridisation and colonial globalisation: a case of British civilising mission in Fiji’, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, 30(4), pp. 932–954.
Deane, P. (1953) Colonial Social Accounting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hirschman, D.A. (2016) Inventing the Economy Or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the GDP. University of Michigan, Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.
Kalpagam, U. (2014) Rule by Numbers: Governmentality in Colonial India. Lexington Books.
Morgan, M.S. (2009) Seeking Parts, Looking for Wholes, History of Observation in Economics Working Paper Series. Available at: https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1496882.
Neu, D. and Graham, C. (2006) ‘The birth of a nation: Accounting and Canada’s first nations, 1860-1900’, Accounting, Organizations and Society, 31(1), pp. 47–76. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aos.2004.10.002.
Okigbo, P. (1957) ‘Factors in West African Economic History’, Journal of World History/Cahiers d’histoire mondiale, 4(1), pp. 218–230.
Okigbo, P. (1962) ‘Nigerian National Accounts, 1950-7’, The review of income and wealth, (1), pp. 285–306.
O’Regan, P. (2010) ‘“A dense mass of petty accountability”: Accounting in the service of cultural imperialism during the Irish Famine, 1846-1847’, Accounting, Organizations and Society, 35(4), pp. 416–430.
Prest, A.R. and Stewart, I.G. (1953) The National Income of Nigeria 1950-51, Colonial Research Studies. London: H.M. Stationary Office for the Colonial Office. Available at: https://doi.org/10.2307/2227907.
Vanoli, A. (2005) A History of National Accounting. Amsterdam: IOS Press.
 Maria Bach is a postdoc at the Walras-Pareto Centre at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. This blog post is part of an ongoing project to examine instances of national accounting in the Global South. Wilhelm Aminoff also contributed to understanding this Nigerian case.
 See e.g., (Neu and Graham, 2006; Davie, 2007; O’Regan, 2010; Kalpagam, 2014; Davie and McLean, 2017)
 Along with E. F. Jackson, although the estimate was finally published by the government in 1962 under only Okigbo’s name.
 Okigbo was likely referring to the internationally agreed standard to compile measures of economic activity, first published in 1947 under the leadership of Stone at the United Nations Statistical Commission. A report based on this standard and published in 1960 , where “transport equipment” under capital formation “include[d] ships, motor cars, trucks and commercial vehicles, aircrafts, tractors for road haulage, vehicles used for public transport systems, railway and tramway rolling stock, carts and wagons” (UN, 1960, p. 29), excluded bikes and personal cars.