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Analysis Economy Governance

A Chained Pakistan Bureau of Statistics: Assessment of ministries’ performance not possible sans an independent body

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Reliable statistics are not only important for estimating poverty, unemployment or GDP, they are also critical for strategic insights, but the successive governments in Pakistan have failed to recognise either, says Business Recorder in a latest report, as it criticised the government over the uncertain future of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS).

Mentioning the recent episode of inflation miscalculation and the erosion of PBS as an institution in general, the newspaper highlighted the essential nature of data gathering and its analysis (statistics) for effective forecasting and planning at state level. In this connection it cited the example of Andrew Marshall.

“Andrew Marshall, arguably the most respected Pentagon strategist, died a few weeks ago. One of his many feats was to flag that the size of USSR’s economy was overestimated, and thereby the burden of its military spending was underestimated. This finding was one of the critical insights based on which the US went ahead with her ‘aggressive arms race strategy’ against the USSR because she knew sooner or later the USSR economy would crumble,” the report says in its initial paragraph.

“The moral of the story: reliable statistics are not only important for estimating poverty, unemployment or GDP, they are also critical for strategic insights. Successive governments in Pakistan have failed to recognise either. This failure has led to statistical bloopers in particular, such as the recent episode of inflation miscalculation, and the erosion of Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) as an institution in general.”

The newspaper says the strengthening and independence of the PBS was neither a part of the party’s 2018 manifesto, nor its 100-day agenda; thus it is not a surprise that the fate of the PBS remains in limbo nine months into the government.

“The PBS has been moved from finance division to the planning division that can’t even manage its think tank PIDE, and whose last experience in overseeing the statistics body was a few decades ago. Nine months on, the PBS also does not have a chief statistician; hopefully the recent March-CPI episode has triggered some action on that front,” the report lamented.

In this scenario, the census of manufacturing industries (needed for latest estimates of labour productivity, cost of inputs, etc) and other critical census and surveys remain pending and without any stated policy direction for improving statistics save for a passing reference in the government’s Ehsaas document.

“Here is what Ehsaas document stated: National Strategy for the development of statistics, for strengthening quality and availability of statistics and to ensure the independence of statistics from political and other undue external influence, so that the government can have access to accurate, reliable, and timely statistics and a solid and credible base of evidence, which is critical to support the design and evaluation of policies’.”

The newspaper raised a very valid question: “If there were indeed plans to make PBS an independent body, why was it moved from finance and parked under planning division instead of giving it the status of a semi-autonomous body that at least had functional and administrative independence. Financial independence is understandably rather difficult.”

Another question is whether the user of data [both finance and planning divisions] can be the producer of data as well? “At least thrice in the past twenty years, finance ministers have made PBS staff sit in a room and ordered them to torture the statistics until such time their preferred growth numbers were produced. That’s the kind of thing that happens to data when you give data users the job to produce data as well.”

Lastly, the report says how the people or the prime minister can assess the performance of planning, finance and so many other ministries, if the statistics body is not independent.

“From policymaking standpoint, economic, social and other forms of data is one of the foundations of modern realisation of justice; failing to bring about NSO [National Statistics Organisation] reforms will lead to a travesty of justice,” says the report.


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