The need for credible data By Nizar Diamond Ali - Tuesday, April 05, 2011

AT any given time, the government machinery directly runs a number of development programmes and projects at the national, provincial and district levels.
These projects require funding, and the decision to allocate funds must ideally be taken on the basis of accurate data. Pakistan is still far from making such data available or putting it to good use. Ask some basic questions about education, for example. Is there a list of public schools operating in Pakistan, with their individual enrolment figures compared to the number of eligible students, city-wise and district-wise? Little credible data is available, other than the aggregate enrolment and teacher figures that are available on the web pages of the provincial ministries.
Similarly, think of data on jobs, healthcare or industrial production. Across the spectrum, baseline data is not available and even where higher-level information can be accessed, it is usually out of date.
Until there is detailed demographic data that shows current trends, policymaking at all levels will not only remain intrinsically unsound but also make monitoring, evaluation and accountability next to impossible. This makes it easy to announce projects, such as the setting up of new schools or capacity development in education, and declare them as successes without justifying the expense incurred or quantifying the benefits.
Pakistan’s primary source of national statistics is the Federal Bureau of Statistics, which works under the Statistics Division. The recently announced plan to merge it with the Population Census Organisation and the Agriculture Census Organisation to create a unified ‘Pakistan Bureau of Statistics’ is a step in the right direction. It will establish a single national-level statistics entity.
Along with its relevance to policymaking and decision-making, standardising the collection and reporting the mechanism of national statistical data sends out a strong signal internationally, particularly to donor and financial agencies. The IMF, for example, defines Special Data Dissemination Standards for participating countries and makes it possible to track a country’s progress against funded projects. For a state such as Pakistan, one of the first tasks while undergoing reforms under international or local programmes is to establish a reliable source of data on how to prioritise the utilisation of limited funds to set and achieve human, social and infrastructure development goals.
Take, for example, the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. This is tracked through a number of indicators including the “prevalence of underweight children less than five years of age”. But according to the UNDP website, this indicator cannot be monitored in Pakistan because of the lack of data. Whatever little information is available on a number of indicators is out of date. This includes the National Nutrition Survey, which has been conducted only three times between 1985 and 2002.
In such a situation, the general public often ends up worse off. Producing meaningful data would ultimately arm the public with information that would enable them to ask questions, say regarding national budget spending. Comparing the demographic data of those who will be paying the newly introduced flood surcharge of 15 per cent on income and withholding tax compared to the earlier proposal of flood tax on those who own 1300CC or larger vehicles, live in 500-yard or larger houses and own agricultural land would surely be interesting. Even amounts collected under the existing tax and the flood tax would differ as, according to a news item published in this newspaper last month, of the 1.7 million taxpayers base in Pakistan, about 1.6 million people pay only about Rs21,000 as yearly income tax, having annual incomes that are less than Rs50,000 per month. On the other hand, the wealth, if not the numbers, of those falling under the earlier proposed flood tax appears to be on the much higher side. Similarly, the low- and middle-income group is already contributing significantly to revenue collection since, according to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority figures, the telecom sector has been adding over Rs100bn a year to the national exchequer since 2007.
The media must take up the role of empowering audiences with the idea of seeking information, not just when decisions are made but well before that. In 1997, Pakistan became the first South Asian country to introduce a freedom of information ordinance, later backed up by the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002. Yet these laws remain largely underutilised. They call for a process of holding federal and provincial government accountable through the publication of records. They also cover expenditures undertaken by public bodies and decisions relating to members of the public.
Nevertheless, Pakistan ranks poorly on the international budget transparency index, the Open Budget Index, that tracks budget accountability and transparency across 94 countries. For 2010, Pakistan scored 38 per cent, which is well below the regional average of 50 per cent and the global average of 42 per cent. This is due to gaps such as the fact that Pakistan does not produce a pre-budget statement or a citizens budget — a non-technical presentation of the budget for the general public. Then, there is a lack of institutional accountability and public participation in the budget process.
With technological advancements and the decreasing cost of modern IT infrastructure, sector-wise data collection and representation at the national and provincial levels should not be too difficult. All that is required is the will to get things done in a structured manner, with the declared aim of making public finance as transparent as possible.

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