Soon after the announcement of the national budget by the finance minister in parliament last week, one thing that appears to have touched a common ground in discussions is that a good deal of allocations and projections in the budget announcement are based on conjectures and not on valid or near-valid data.
Experts have opined that in the time of the pandemic, there has been a substantial change in the poverty levels of low-income groups in the country. There has also not been enough collection of data related to the pandemic situation from government organisations. However, data collected, though not on a comprehensive basis by some think tanks, suggest that poverty rate has increased, and that there has been a big crisis in the labour market - including urban to rural migration and increased pressure on the rural job market. In the absence of data, small enterprises in the informal sector have suffered most and have received the least amount of support during the pandemic. So, addressing the problems of loss of employment or income can hardly be expected to be addressed without reliable information. Not only have the poor become poorer with a steep rise in the poverty rate, there are also groups of people all over the country who can now be termed the 'new poor'. The government has no data on the new poor, and hence allocating funds or providing in-kind support is likely to be difficult, unless well-synchronised efforts are in place to enlist these people on an emergency basis.
No doubt the budget here can make all the difference given its crucial importance to the country's macro planning for the entire fiscal year. While it is the key pointer of all economic aspects on the basis of which plans are to be framed at various levels, absence of data, even provisional data, reflects the speculative nature of our planning at the highest level. Unfortunately, the picture is not different when it comes to micro-level planning.
Lack of updated, even absence of, data in many cases, has for long been one of the key constraints in the government's decision-making. It is often alleged that lack of updated data or data mismatch makes planning and budgetary exercise difficult. Besides, there are unreliable and conflicting data, potentially capable of misguiding policy planners. It may be mentioned that the data produced by the government's Planning Division and Statistics Division as well as other key divisions differ significantly.
Quality data are of crucial importance and indeed integral to government policies upon which depends the success of planning and execution. While absence of data in many areas is a serious problem both for the policy planners in the government as well as individual researchers, conflicting data can cause havoc in that it is likely to misdirect decision making on the part of the government and render research findings grossly erroneous.
Relevant quarters are often of the opinion that lack of coordination among different agencies of the government is primarily responsible for data anomalies. Besides, there are plenty of areas in the economic, social and industrial sectors where extensive efforts are required for creating comprehensive data bases. Data on arable lands, industrial lands, livestock, productivity in various primary and manufacturing sectors as well as on a diverse variety of social and healthcare-related issues constitute a major requirement for authentic planning and policy formulation of the government. Equally important, if not more, is the requirement of various development activities undertaken by non-government organisations (NGOs) and foreign donors and lenders.
Given the vital role that data play, there is a growing global awareness to restructure the methods to collect, assimilate and monitor data as a key mechanism of policy formulation and subsequent monitoring. At a UN conference on what has been dubbed as a data revolution, organised at the UN headquarters sometime ago, the Bangladesh planning minister while acknowledging the importance of timely and authentic data emphasised the critical need for open and publicly accessible data to speed up implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The concept of data revolution implies drawing on existing and new sources of facts and information to fully integrate those into decision-making and promoting open access. At the heart of the matter is an acknowledgement that timely and usable data are critical to informed decision-making, monitoring of progress and achieving desired outcomes.
It must be acknowledged that Bangladesh is far from making quality data available to the policy planners as well as to the public. In this context, it may be worthwhile to note that recently the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) approved a project for setting up a national data centre. The project aims at speeding up information flow and safe and secure use of data, besides optimising the use of ICT in government functions. It is also designed to improve the service delivery system through continuous interactions among government agencies as a means of removing coordination gap. One hopes that the purpose of the proposed project does not get strayed - a not too uncommon reality in many lofty government projects.