3 (slightly better) alternatives to the CIA World Factbook

When we source data, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • How credible is the information provided?
  • What is the context of the organisation/individual providing the information?
  • Why is this information being provided by the organisation/individual?
  • What implications does this information hold?
  • What is the significance of the information being provided?


1. Factual Errors

The CIA has a cleverly labelled website and publication called the World Factbook. Cleverly labelled because it is the CIA’s – and thus the US government’s – attempt to define for us what is “correct” information for the countries it covers. It is an attempt to tell us what is the standardised and correct way of viewing the world around us; but just how factual is the Factbook? Here are just some of its inaccuracies below:

1. a) Syrian population

The World Factbook currently underestimates the Syrian population, stating it is just over 17 million.[1] According to the Federation of American Scientists, the population of Syria is more likely to be between 22 and 23 million.[2]

1. b) Disputed nations

Some disputed nations, such as the Western Sahara, are included in the CIA World Factbook, whereas others, including Kashmir and Palestine, are not included. Are there political motivations behind this inconsistency? What are they?

1. c) Transnational organisations

Another inconsistency is that some transnational organisations, such as the European Union, has a special status on the database under the Factbook’s regular “country” profiles. Other transnational organisations, such as ASEAN (which has a Chinese presence) and the OSCE (which has a Russian presence), are not included. Why?

1. d) Israeli settlements

The World Factbook misses demographic information on the substantial population of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank despite including the population of Israeli settlers in the smaller occupied areas of Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.[3] We are not sure if this is purely coincidental or politically motivated.


2. Alternative Data Sources

The CIA World Factbook is used by many research students and is referred to by many others as a standard for data gathering for GDP, GNP, and demographic statistics. However, we must also remember not to separate the information provided from the CIA’s purpose and objectives as a national American government department. Therefore, I think it is very reasonable to suggest that it is unlikely that the Central Intelligence Agency is providing us its information out of pure benevolence.

So, what are more credible (though not perfect) alternatives to the CIA World Factbook? The organisations listed below have their own political contexts, but are very slightly less agenda-driven than the CIA’s attempt to define “facts” on the world around us:

2. a) World Bank Open Data

The World Bank, as well as the IMF, were established at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, and can thus be seen as a US NGO that promotes – either partly or wholly – US interests. Namely, the shift from measuring world currency against gold towards a pegging against the US Dollar.

Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that the World Bank is slightly less agenda-driven than the CIA! You can view its country data for your research here.

2. b) UNdata

The UN is, of course, a post-World War institution which is partly dedicated to preserving the current world structure and preventing a re-escalation to global conflict. Hence, the US, France, Russia, China and the UK placed themselves as permanent members holding veto power in its Security Council.

There are, however, more neutral elements of the UN where decision-making happens more multilaterally, such as the UN General Assembly and the UN Development Project.

The UN Statistics Division is another one of these elements, and has released its own demographic statistics database, which you can find here.

2. c) IMF Country Information

The IMF can be considered the World Bank’s sibling, and can thus also be seen as an institution that promotes and refers to the dollar standard throughout its publications. This is problematic because it reinforces the idea that the US is the standard and point of reference of a successful society, when this is of course highly debatable. Nonetheless, like UNdata, IMF Country Information is more consistent in its approach to disputed nations, and opts to leaving them all out regardless of whether or not they are US allies.

Furthermore, its research is more comprehensive than the CIA’s and has a broad variety of contributors from different backgrounds and different perspectives. You can look at IMF’s country information by following this link.

If you have any other alternative data sources please let us know in the comments section below.


3. References

[1] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sy.html

[2] https://fas.org/blogs/secrecy/2014/06/cia-syria/

[3] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/is.html


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