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.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

National System of Innovation

Muhammad Shafique

Cornell University, INSEAD, and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) have recently  released the report on Global Innovation Index (GII) 2015. While emphasizing the key role of innovation in driving economic growth and development, this year's GII report highlights the role of policy and institutional conditions in promoting innovation. The report also provides many lessons drawn from the nations found as innovation achievers and outperformers.

Among the 141 economies included in the index, Pakistan ranks 131, staying on the heels of Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Algeria. This state of performance is obviously nowhere near Pakistan's potential given her size, resources, and geographic location. Thus the report provides an opportunity and the knowledge base to review our innovation performance as a nation and reflect on possible avenues for improvement.

The state-of-the-art knowledge about innovation in general and the GII report in particular suggest that economic growth and development of a nation are determined by the national system of innovation on the one hand and its culture on the other. The former relates to the institutional conditions and the latter relates to the values, attitudes, and norms of the society. Fortunately, both are interrelated and hence both can be influenced and reshaped through public policy.

The report suggests that an explicit and coherent national innovation policy mix plays a key role in the innovation performance of a nation. Several countries have realized this need and explicitly included innovation policy as part of the portfolio of a ministry. Perhaps one of the reasons behind our dismal performance is the neglect of innovation in national development plans. We can certainly benefit by explicitly incorporating innovation in our national plans and policies in the light of our peculiar needs, problems, and the resource base. Accordingly, innovation policy may be included in the portfolio of one of existing ministries, such as the ministry of planning, development, and reform.

This needs to be remembered, however, that creation of a productive national system of innovation as well as the culture of innovation requires incorporation of innovation in all policies and plans related to national development. Therefore, regardless of which institution steers the innovation policy plan, coordination and integration with all related institutions and policies is the key to success.

The GII report has highlighted several pillars of innovation inputs and outputs. Human capital and research is one of these pillars of innovation. Accordingly, education and research & development (R&D) are important parts of this pillar. 

Education is an important input factor because it transforms human population into human capital that can contribute to the productive activities of the nation. Therefore, a significant part of the poor performance of Pakistan can be traced to its education system. Unfortunately, the education system in Pakistan is highly fragmented and socially stratified at the foundational (primary and secondary) as well as tertiary levels and does a poor job in fulfilling its universal purpose.

The public education system has been continuously deteriorating due to several reasons. First, the rate of growth in number of public schools and colleges has lagged far behind the rate of growth in population. This situation has been compounded due to the creation of ghost schools and ghost teachers who exist only in government records. Consequently, a large number of children in rural areas do not have access to education. Second, lack of growth in the number of public schools and deterioration in the quality of education in existing schools has created room for private interests to intervene. The result: mushrooming growth of private schools of numerous kinds in semi-urban and urban areas. Due to the lack of proper regulation of school system, this phenomenon is negatively affecting the society on several accounts, including poor stock and flow of human capital for the national system of innovation.

On the other hand, without due attention to and investment in foundational education, we have started to expect miracles from higher education sector. Without proper planning about the kind of knowledge and human capital the nation needs, several sprints were made on several fronts of higher education. First, we prompted mushroom growth of new universities without due consideration to the supply of qualified faculty. Consequently, universities have employed underqualified and untrained people for teaching and research. Second, new universities started numerous programs, including research degree programs, without properly assessing the demand for those programs and employability of graduates. In short, despite the lack of qualified faculty, universities have continued to produce inadequately trained research graduates and employing them as faculty and research staff. Therefore, the higher education system has created a circular flow of underdeveloped human capital for itself.

As a result of this self-feeding phenomenon, the nation has 'progressed' in terms of number of degree awarding institutions and number of graduates holding advance degrees but the quality of human capital stock and flow has not improved significantly. Nor does the knowledge produced from research programs of universities help understand and solve the contemporary problems facing the nation. This 'progress' in higher education has helped nothing but raise the bar of academic qualifications for employment and fueled the quest for university degrees, hence fake degree scandals and scams. In short, it may be expected that the net effect of the developments in relation to education during recent decades is negative.

Research and development (R&D) is a vital source of innovation and Pakistan has a dismal record on this account as well with an exception to defense-related R&D. Public R&D has been largely unproductive and private R&D is scarce. This is partly due to the fact that Pakistan still lacks a culture of innovation because relevant institutions are not performing their due role. Here again, universities are important suppliers of key inputs to the R&D system of a nation, including knowledge and human capital. However, despite the fact that the nation has several engineering and technology universities, their practical contributions to R&D output of the nation are negligible.

In the short run, Pakistan can improve its innovation performance in the areas of human capital and research through at least two measures. First, universities need to take stock of their existing knowledge base and deploy it to diagnose and help solve the real problems of Pakistan in various areas. To this end, universities should engage with local industry and institutions to help identify and solve their needs and problems, particularly through their existing research programs. Second, universities should create a culture of innovation and gear their existing training programs to generate knowledge and skills that can help foster entrepreneurship among youth. Third, government should expand the scope of short-term training programs in entrepreneurship among unemployed youth.

In the long run, Pakistan needs serious reforms in several areas to develop an effective national system of innovation, particularly in the subsystem that produces knowledge and prepares human capital. Unless this subsystem contributes the kind of localized knowledge and human capital that can help diagnose and solve the practical problems facing Pakistan, any vision and hope of national development is unlikely to materialize.

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.

An earlier version of this article was published in The News.