Last week, this newspaper carried two back to back headlines that should have piqued the interest of all and sundry. Only that it didn’t. Both related to cabinet members’ mistrust of national socio-economic statistics.
First, in his reaction to a question at Senate’s standing committee on commerce, PM’s Advisor on Commerce and Investment, Abdul Razak Dawood expressed no-confidence in prices of commodities being collated by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS). His comments were specific to certain farming commodities.
Two days later, in a meeting of the Monetary and Fiscal Policies Coordination Board (MFPCB), PM’s Adviser on Finance and Revenue Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh expressed concern over the credibility of the data compiled by the PBS, whilst wondering how unemployment could be addressed if no institution was working on it, and the ‘numbers quoted are nothing but heresy’.
It is refreshing to see some of the cabinet’s key leaders expressing concern over the reliability of national socio-economic statistics. Both the issue of reliability of inflation and unemployment are long pending, even though in the case of former, the CPI rebasing was only recently approved by this very government. In the case of unemployment, this space has long been arguing for robust and more frequent unemployment surveys in the absence of which all the political noise, drawing room chatter, and NGO effort looks baseless. (See BR Research’s ‘Is unemployment really Pakistan’s big issue?’ 5 Sep 2019) At the MFPCB meeting, Hafeez reportedly stressed on the need for building capacity of the PBS for providing reliable data, which would help in effective policymaking. That is indeed a good reason why Pakistan needs to work on statistics. But there are at least a few more reasons why Pakistan must take aggressive moves towards reforming statistics, and far more areas other than inflation and unemployment that warrant urgent attention of provincial and national statistics organisations.
In the case of latter, consider for instance, that despite all the hype about SME finance, Pakistan doesn’t know SME’s contribution to GDP, exports, and so forth. All the numbers being quoted by the economics community are estimates that have very poor basis of reliability. Or consider the fact that large scale manufacturing is hugely under-representative of the real economy, whereas livestock surveys by provincial bodies suggest that Pakistan’s livestock is actually lower than what the PBS estimates. Population census is another long unaddressed agenda. (See BR Research’s ‘Is SME finance really at historic high?, 27 Nov 2019)
Collecting and estimating statistics for all these and much more does not only help towards better policymaking but it would also put Pakistan’s economy and its various sectors on the map, which in turn can help attract foreign and local investments. Who doesn’t love a well mapped growing economy? Second, if the PM is really interested in doing performance evaluation of his ministers and advisors, then having a strong, free and autonomous statistics body can go a long way towards achieving that goal. Here is hoping, the cabinet takes on this agenda head-on. And soon! (Read also: The black box of provincial economies, 26 May 2017; Free the statistics (division), 2 May 2019)