The Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry has urged the government to waive the requirement for CNIC for sale to unregistered persons. At a time when lack of documentation and scarcity of socio-economic data is limiting the state’s capacity to judiciously tailor and distribute endowments to the poor and the businesses, one would argue that government datasets need to be strengthened rather than weakened. It is another thing that the CNIC requirement may not be the best measure of documentation.
Who knows when will the pandemic end. If global public health experts are any guide, it’s here to stay for another eighteen months. Whether Pakistan decides to go for herd immunity or remains in perennial lockdown, local and global economies are expected to be in a slump and smart lockdowns will invariably be the order of the day. Hindsight is 20-20 but the consensus view is that we are in this for a long haul.
This means stimuluses, bailouts, and handouts to businesses, newly unemployed, and the structurally poor will keep coming in various shapes and sizes. Businesses asking for bailouts should keep this in mind before culling the hen that lays golden eggs. Expect also that politics of dole outs will abound, especially if there is lack of transparency, and if the state endowments are not distributed on the basis of evidence. And evidence Pakistan does not have. (Read BR Research’s ‘MSMEs bail out’, Apr 13, 2020)
Now, therefore, is the time to ramp up efforts to improve socio-economic and business statistics of the country, and also the much-awaited tax system’s data analytics. Citizens and businesses may have more incentives to be a part of the system now, when they are pinning their hopes for state endowments, than when they are minting money and would like to hide from the system.
The PM should also take this opportunity to convene a meeting with the provinces and develop a playbook for a coordinated provincial and federal exercise in all sorts of surveys, statistics and documentation, as a steppingstone towards the end goal of Big Data. (Read also ‘Data, not anecdotes, must drive Pakistan’, Jan 8, 2020)
In the meanwhile, the following measures are proposed for the government’s consideration, many of which require the lead of Digital Pakistan team; Tania should team up with Nadra.
Aggressively expand mobile and internet coverage aiming towards higher bandwidth availability and last mile delivery; now is the time to use the like of USF funds, and CPEC’s fiber optics.
Use data of borrowers from microfinance organisations, branchless banking operators and other fin-tech players, and tailor the state’s endowments for those small borrowers.
Link up all private and public sector philanthropic organisations under one mobile app that contains details of charity recipients and other relevant information. The data should not be downloadable for all, but the system should be able to tell those who have already received charity for the month from those who have not.
Nadra should put a business registration registry that triangulates all datasets of businesses, be it SECP-registered companies, partnerships, Association of Persons or sole proprietorships. It could also eventually develop a database of businesses and their employees.
The use of Weboc and FBR’s sales tax return systems should also be considered. These already have importers and exporters on their list; the list can be expanded to include various information about employees, suppliers and buyers, active tax filers or not.
Using mobile and internet, launch workforce surveys to assess true picture of unemployment on at least monthly basis, as against the current labour force surveys that is done annually and reported with a 12-month lag. (Read ‘Is unemployment really Pakistan’s big issue?’ Sep 5, 2019)
These and other efforts will obviously require huge state expenditure. But if we are already heading towards huge budget deficit, then might as well take an even bigger hit on the books and lay the foundations of better growth and better policymaking.
An array of research suggests that big data can amplify GDP growth as businesses benefit across a variety of industries. There is also growing evidence that those economies which are better documented can be governed better, especially in a time of crisis, and that data science can make economic statistics relevant, timely, accurate, and detailed for well-tailored policymaking and distribution of various state endowments.
It is clichéd to say that there is an opportunity in every crisis. It’s cliched because it is also true. If the government must spend to kick start the economy, then it might as well kick start the new economy i.e. the digital and data economy and take a step into the future.