The Conundrum of Statistics in Bangladesh

Apon Zahir | 25 October 2021
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As a country becomes more developed and its institutions adopt the conveniences of modern technologies, it can be a natural assumption that the resultant inflow of statistical data would paint a better picture of the day-to-day workings of a nation’s economy and society. 

Unfortunately though, this has not been the case for Bangladesh in 2021. 

Despite rapid modernisation in the field of data collection and analysis in almost all sectors, the country has managed to attain its lowest ever score in the World Bank's Statistical Capacity Index. 

According to the World Bank, Bangladesh’s statistical capacity was at its sharpest in 2014, when the incumbent government came to power. Besides, there was a massive undertaking by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) to form the Economic Census of 2013 the year before.

However, in the eight years that followed, Bangladesh’s statistical capacity has seen a steady decline as old data becomes more and more outdated, and no new initiative is made to update key indexes.

The data from the Economic Census 2013 is still widely cited as the only available metrics in many important sectors such as employment in small-and-medium-enterprises and their contribution towards our GDP. 

Such outdated data is also being readily used to aid in making important macro-level policy decisions, such as the promulgation of the government stimulus package for cottage, micro, small-and-medium enterprises (CMSMEs).

The results of these decisions have been as convoluted as the statistics they are based on with allegations of corruption abound and countless CMSMEs not being able to acquire the aid package due to incompetent execution. 

Another important factor holding back data collection and proper analysis is the lack of cohesion among the commissions in charge of the various sectors of the economy. 

Till date, Bangladesh has struggled to implement a uniform definition for local CMSMEs with various trade bodies and organisations operating under their in-house definitions. 

Such lack of cohesion was demonstrated publicly when the BBS and Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) gave conflicting reports on the year’s crop harvests for fiscal 2020-21. 

The confusion caused by this mismatch resulted in the government not being able to order adequate imports of rice in time to meet local demand. 

To add further fuel to this conundrum, it has to be noted that the government has currently dedicated the historically largest portion of its national budget towards the development of our nation’s statistical capacity. 

However, statistical capacity is still at an all-time low. Therefore, one has to ask, how have things gone so wrong? 

The answer provided by the World Bank is that the quality of data in Bangladesh has steadily declined mainly due to weaknesses in the source of information, methodological approach or and determining standards, and inability to disclose information on time. 

Other important factors being pointed out are the lack of proficiency and training among workers in charge of data collection, and the lack of initiative by relevant organisations to conduct thorough surveys and investigations to update their current census data. 

In a webinar held by the CGS recently, it was repeatedly pointed out how the data being used in the national budget is outdated and erroneous. 

Planning Minister MA Mannan, who attended the webinar, also agreed that there is a problem with the data, which goes to show that the government is well aware that this issue is quickly escalating into a crisis. 

A review of the statistical capabilities of Bangladesh is long overdue and perhaps the recent mishaps in budgeting will wake the government to the fact that this needs to be done.

Apon Zahir, Research Assistant, Centre for Governance Studies. 

Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.