Data distraction and our budget

Debapriya Bhattacharya | 11 June 2020
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As success has many fathers, witty comments too have many misattributed sources. For example, the sentence that "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics" was mistakenly attributed by author extraordinaire Mark Twain to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Whereas, it is highly possible that the instructive comment was made by the English radical politician Sir Charles Dike. Whoever may have first voiced this sentence, the fact remains that the authority of statistics had been on the back foot ever since. And those who make a living by using those statistics, like us, had to be doubly careful regarding their proper use.

The immediate relevance of this lead-in relates to the upcoming national budget (Budget21) and publication of the estimated growth rate of Bangladesh's gross domestic product (GDP) for the elapsing fiscal year. It is no secret that the economic growth story of the country is bitingly embedded in its development narrative. In the recent past, however, independent sources have raised concerns about the serious lack of consistency between estimated GDP growth figures and related performance indicators of the economy. These proxy indicators include private investment, credit growth to private sector, revenue intake, capital machinery import, energy consumption. Last year, I said that "the economic growth figure is now more like a flying kite not attached to its string and spool," implying that the estimated numbers are not substantively supported by the revealed developments in the linked sectors.

This apparent disjuncture between the economic growth figures and observed changes in the associated sectors led to intriguing interpretations of our recent development episode. The most dominant elucidation was the one espousing the theory that Bangladesh economy is experiencing a spectacular productivity growth—i.e. more is being produced with less capital and inputs—although evidence on this professed technological transformation is still awaited.

Early signals about the GDP growth estimate for the concluding fiscal year indicate that the concerned estimate for 2019-20 may give rise to fresh debates about its veracity. This data debate may distract us from the evidence-based substantive policy discussion on the much-needed socioeconomic recovery and rebound interventions in the context of the ravages of Covid-19.

Regarding the GDP growth rate in 2019-20, there is a general consensus that it will be significantly lower than the planned target of 8.2 percent. Following the outburst of the pandemic, IMF came out with a projection of 3.8 percent of economic growth for Bangladesh. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) made a similar allusion. The latest forecast of the World Bank mentions 1.6 percent growth for Bangladesh in this fiscal year. The Economist Intelligence Unit made a similar prediction earlier. Recently, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) has estimated that the growth rate is likely to be about 2.5 percent.

Against this backdrop, one of the senior political officeholders suggested that the country's economy, notwithstanding the pandemic-induced economic collapse, will record a 6 percent growth in the outgoing fiscal year. Indeed, it prompted Bloomberg to feature an article mentioning that this pace could make "Bangladesh an outlier in a world set to contract." One wonders whether there was a hint of subtle sarcasm in that reportage.

Many countries have addressed the challenge of producing robust GDP estimates by introducing the practice of having quarterly GDP. Notwithstanding repeated promises by the mandarins of the establishment, this good practice is yet to come by in Bangladesh. Rather, the quarterly assessment of labour market dynamics, once introduced under the Labour Force Survey, was swiftly abandoned. Incidentally, in one of our neighbouring countries, a recent attempt to tackle GDP growth figures by independent experts suggested a discernible degree of overestimation, leading to a huge political debate.

The adequacy of statistics acquires special significance this time around. Data collection and collation were not considered to be an "essential service" during the protracted "general holiday" preceding the budget session of parliament. Given the continuing catastrophe, we have not been able to produce a set of nationally representative impact assessments concerning specific groups of affected people, activities and institutions. Because of such an uncertain baseline, the projections for the medium term (3-5 years)—usually accompanying the budget—will be on shaky grounds. This creates an interplay of "adverse selection" and "moral hazard" problems while trying to tune our fiscal priorities in favour of the traditionally left behind groups as well as the nouveaux pauvres (newly poor persons).

Official statistics are essentially a "public good", just as our common language or national security. Public confidence in the trustworthiness, quality and value of statistics is critical not only for the credibility of the government's policies and measures, but also for smooth functioning of markets and rational behaviour of consumers. Regrettably, non-government sector professionals, in the recent period, have been increasingly expressing their discomfort regarding the diminished availability, accessibility and usability of official data and information.  

Without indulging into dull details, let me just mention that information on many basic indicators in Bangladesh often vary from one official source to another. Many sectoral projections are done based on behind-the-time baseline and/or by using outdated technical coefficients. Many emerging activities remain beyond estimation coverage. Delayed publication of the figures limits their usefulness. In many cases, data discrepancy arises due to lack of harmonisation of concepts and definitions as well as owing to difference in estimation procedures and accounting practices.

The case of misleading data use may be illustrated by the way figures for the fiscal framework are derived. The government's income-expenditure balance is conventionally based on the figures obtained from the Revised Budget (usually produced with data up to March), not on the "projected actual" figure for June-end. Because of this practice, for instance, the target set for revenue collection apparently seems to be modest but, in reality, very high because of the inflated base figure. As a result, the revenue shortfall from the target for 2019-20 may be to the tune of Tk 125,000 crores—that is, a whopping one-third of the annual target. 

Policy makers (and analysts) in Bangladesh are hugely handicapped by data deficit as they do not have real-time information on many critical variables, such as investment, employment and consumer demand. On the other hand, demands on data and information are growing exponentially, unlocking a phenomenon known as Data Revolution. In the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the citizens are no longer content with averages; they would like to have a disaggregated picture to establish "who are being pushed behind". Processing of administrative data, remote-sensing data, "big data" from private entities, robust data from non-government sources, etc. are opening up new horizons of solutions for our national data challenges. 

The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), under the Ministry of Planning, mandated by the Statistics Act (2013), is the custodian of official data. It has quite an impressive National Strategy for Development of Statistics (NSDS). A number of international development partners are engaged in building the capacity of the organisation, particularly in the area of core statistics. However, enhanced professionalism of the experts may not be enough to deal with the tradition of politically vetted numbers.

In the parlance of judicial praxis, it is occasionally mentioned that there are three types of liars: simple liars, damned liars and expert witnesses. We, those who have to deal with statistics of dubious quality, need to be mindful—particularly during the Budget season—that we are not disposed of as belonging to the third category.

Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Dhaka.

This article was originally published on The Daily Star. 
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.