The Financial Express

Establishing an 'independent' statistical commission

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That the statistics being churned out by the relevant state entity in Bangladesh are not that much trusted by the private researchers is no secret. The relevant policymakers and the government high-ups have always preferred to ignore the growing scepticism about the government data. They have not, however, openly defended the quality of government data. But incumbent planning minister M.A. Mannan on Thursday last brought an end to a long-standing indifference to the issue at the policymakers' level. The minister publicly backed the formation of an independent statistical commission, saying that some countries have constituted the same.

Neighbouring India does have a national statistical commission, which is a statutory body. The commission that works as a 'modal and empowered' body for all statistical activities monitors and enforces statistical priorities. The basic statistical activities are done by the Indian Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), an establishment identical to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).

When the country's planning minister, who is known to be a down-to-earth person, feels the necessity of forming an 'independent' statistical commission, the top policymakers of the government should have reasons to attach due importance to the issue. Local experts and private think tanks do often express their reservation about the quality of some key national statistics. Multilateral institutions having a notable stake in the development activities in Bangladesh also do not have a high opinion about the quality of BBS data. Scepticism has developed over BBS data since oftentimes those do not match the ground realities.

The non-availability of alternative sources of data remains a problem here. The collection of data from the field level is something both expensive and extensive. The government has a statistical office at each upazila. The field offices of various government departments and agencies, when asked, also provide the BBS with data/information. No private think-tank or research organisation can employ either human resources or funds to gather data from the field. They usually carry out random surveys or limited studies that could represent the situation prevailing on the ground.

However, it all depends on the sweet will of the government whether to accept or ignore the results of such surveys/ studies. The finance minister's refusal to accept the outcome of the recent surveys by several private research organisations on 'new poor' is a case in point.

Under the circumstances, it is important to ensure the quality of data used in preparing national plans and policies. The government might feel the temptation of manipulating data to its advantage. But such a practice undermines the national interest and contributes to deliberate overlooking of the actual needs of the people and the economy.

So, having an independent statistical commission to ensure the generation of quality data is of utmost importance. But getting a truly independent entity in Bangladesh is pretty difficult. The performance of many regulatory and constitutional institutions could be a guide to this effect. Hopefully, the top policymakers would attach due importance to the establishment of an independent statistical commission in the greater interest of the nation.

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