Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Role of Data in Development

Muhammad Shafique

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Report 2015 has highlighted the importance of measuring what we treasure, counting the uncounted, and reaching the unreached. Measurement is the key to effective management. For instance, Kenya was able to launch several initiatives to bolster enrollment in primary and secondary education because it learned from the purposefully collected data that there were large disparities between the arid and semi-arid areas in terms of net enrollment.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda are the next big call of international community. Attainment of the 17 SDGs requires careful monitoring of progress on 169 targets. Aside from monitoring the progress on SDG targets as part of our national commitment, we also need data for shifting from whimsical to evidence-based governance and management. Accordingly, there is a need to review, modernize, and extend the scope of our national statistical system in order to generate accurate and timely data.

Factual data and information about every important aspect of society is necessary for the production of local knowledge. This knowledge is needed as a key input for policies and strategies at all levels of government. It is hard to overemphasize the fact that local knowledge and localization of global knowledge are necessary conditions to improve the governance and management and raise national productivity. Therefore, purposeful collection of data is a necessary first step to dispense with the wishful thinking and whimsical decision-making that are arguably among the most fundamental causes of underdevelopment of our nation.

It is often lamented that researchers and academics, who are responsible for producing relevant and useful scientific knowledge regarding the society, are not doing their job well. While this disappointment is justified, society should also allow them a discount for the problems that they face in playing their role. Lack of relevant, sufficient, and reliable secondary data is one of the most fundamental of the problems that undermine research efforts, particularly in social sciences. The data produced by the national statistical system is often necessary not only to understand the context of research problems and formulate the research but also to evaluate the potential value of the knowledge for the society. Therefore, production of local knowledge and localization of global knowledge depends heavily on the output of national statistical system.

Unfortunately, accurate data are not available about the basic aspects of our society such as population, education, and health, let alone the data about advanced aspects such as carbon emissions and other contributors to the climate change. In this age, we have to wait for years for population census to determine the demographic changes in the profile of society whereas real-time information can be generated at much less cost by harnessing the information and communication technologies (ICTs).

The ICTs provide the foundations for the creation of "information society" as suggested by the well-known Information Society Index. Correspondingly, these technologies also serve as the means for e-governance. Effective e-governance involves harnessing the power of the ICTs for the provision of government services to all the stakeholders, including those who produce knowledge and those who produce goods and services. Since knowledge is the key input in all productive activities, an information society may be transformed into knowledge-based society by generating such information that can be used as input for the creation of useful knowledge. The information and knowledge that are useful for effective governance and management largely emanate, directly or indirectly, from the data generated through the national statistical system.

Establishment of an effective national statistical system that is capable of providing real-time data about all important aspects of society is imperative for improving governance and management. More importantly, it can help tackle the major problems of our society, including terrorism and corruption. For instance, the belated but welcome drives for documentation of seminaries in connection with the former and the digitization of the land records in view of the latter are indicative of the importance of data for effective governance. Similarly, data are also needed to understand and regulate the role of private institutions in several key areas such as education, health, and urbanization.

An effective national statistical system involves two major aspects: institutional and technical. The institutional aspect involves, first and foremost, a national statistical policy to direct all formal institutions of the state, ranging from a municipality to the senate, to collect accurate data in their jurisdiction and make it accessible to all stakeholders. Such a policy requires a national institution that can define the nature of data needed and determine which institution is responsible for its collection. Moreover, data collection and reporting by all institutions needs to be monitored and coordinated. Finally, collected data need to be organized according to the needs of national and international stakeholders. Theoretically, existing Pakistan Bureau of Statistics can be empowered to perform this role and serve as the national statistical grid.

The technical aspect of national statistical system primarily involves the supply of human capital embodying the knowledge and skills related to statistical science. These skills become increasingly more important along a continuum from the collection of data to developing intelligence from the data. The availability of such human capital is generally determined by the national curriculum policy that guides the school and college education system and determines the areas of emphasis in skill development.

Quantitative skills are an essential component of the skill set that the education system must inculcate. For instance, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of OECD considers application of mathematical skills as a major component of the skill set expected from compulsory education. However, unfortunately, experience suggests that our education system is doing a poor job on this account and we urgently need to address this situation. This, however, seems to have become difficult after the abolition of federal curriculum development system and the transfer of such authority to the provinces as a result of the 18th Amendment.

In short, development of an effective national statistical system is necessary to improve governance and management at all levels of government and in all formal institutions of Pakistan. This will also help contribute to better global governance through obligatory reporting of accurate national statistics to the multilateral agencies, particularly on account of SDGs. Most importantly, this will stimulate and facilitate our transformation from a traditional society to a knowledge-based society.

The writer is a doctoral fellow in economics and management of innovation and technological change at Maastricht University, The Netherlands, and a faculty member at Faculty of Management Sciences, International Islamic University Islamabad, Pakistan.
Twitter @kmshafique

This article was published as op-ed piece in The Nation on 20-Oct-2015 (Wold Statistics Day). It is published here verbatim.