Abstract

GDP per capita and household survey means present conflicting pictures of the rate of economic development in emerging countries. One of the areas in which the national accounts–household surveys debate is key is the measurement of developing world poverty. We propose a data-driven method to assess the relative quality of GDP per capita and survey means by comparing them to the evolution of satellite-recorded nighttime lights. Our main assumption, which is robust to a variety of specification checks, is that the measurement error in nighttime lights is unrelated to the measurement errors in either national accounts or survey means. We obtain estimates of weights on national accounts and survey means in an optimal proxy for true income; these weights are very large for national accounts and very modest for survey means. We conclusively reject the null hypothesis that the optimal weight on surveys is greater than the optimal weight on national accounts, and we generally fail to reject the null hypothesis that the optimal weight on surveys is zero. Additionally, we provide evidence that national accounts are good indicators of desirable outcomes for the poor (such as longer life expectancy, better education and access to safe water), and we show that surveys appear to perform worse in developing countries that are richer and that are growing faster. Therefore, we interpret our results as providing support for estimates of world poverty that are based on national accounts. JEL Code: I32.

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